Light Touch

Drive-through museum: The Beck was designed with car-loving Houstonians in mind.


As you drive down Main Street, the solid, nearly windowless limestone mass of the new Audrey Jones Beck Building appears to be a fortress, filling the city block from curb to curb. It's hard to imagine that the main idea behind this opaque counterpart to the steel-and-glass Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is the use of natural light. But one look at the rooftop, where a small village of louvered skylights camps out, provides a hint as to the importance of Gulf Coast light in the display of art here.

The $83 million, 192,447-square-foot Beck building, the latest addition to the MFA "campus" at the juncture of Main, Montrose and Bissonnet, completes the master plan for the museum's expansion guided by director Peter Marzio. The Glassell School of Art (1979, Morris Associates), the Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden (1986, Isamu Noguchi), the Administration and Junior School (1994, Carlos Jimenez Architectural Design Studio) and a new parking garage on the east side of the Beck make the MFA complex a neighborhood of its own, where a casual Sunday afternoon will no longer be enough to take in the exhibitions.

With the official opening of the Beck building on Saturday, March 25, the MFA will, for the first time in its history, have more than 90 percent of its permanent collection of 40,000 works on display -- and it will still have gallery space for traveling exhibitions. The combined gallery space of the Beck and Caroline Wiess Law (the renamed original museum) buildings, at 158,150 square feet, makes the MFA the sixth largest in the country, up from 30th. Art from ancient periods through the 19th century will be shown in the Beck building, with 20th- and 21st-century work in the Law building.

Spanish architect Rafael Moneo designed the Beck building. Winner of the architectural profession's prestigious Pritzker Prize in 1996, Moneo was selected from a field of more than 30 prominent architects. His experience with museum projects (National Museum of Roman Art in Merida, Spain; Miró Museum in Palma de Mallorca, Spain; Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection in Madrid, Spain; Davis Museum and Cultural Center, Wellesley College; and the Moderna Museet in Stockholm) was essential to his selection for the Beck building.

So much for the particulars. Let's take a tour:

The formal entrance on Main Street is, appropriately for Houston, dedicated to the car. A drive-through for drop-off and valet parking fractures the building into an abstract composition of openings that indicate the "front" of the museum, although few visitors will enter here. Most people will arrive, again in a typically Houston fashion, through the tunnels that connect the Beck building to the new garage on the block to the east. But Houston hasn't seen anything like these tunnels. The garage tunnel under Fannin is tall, spacious and blindingly white. From the original museum, the tunnel under Main Street, actually a gallery, is a test of your visual and spatial perception. The neon light installation by artist James Turrell dissolves the wall and floor planes: With a modest suspension of disbelief, you will float through this glowing chamber without quite knowing how you managed it. Both tunnels end at the new basement-level Café Express, furnished with blond wood, palm trees and an outdoor court with a cascading fountain. Stop here for sustenance, because the tour of the galleries will require energy.

The escalator from the basement arrives in a low-ceilinged lobby, where the Main and Binz street entrances also converge. A row of smooth limestone slabs serve as turnstiles, regulating your approach to the central atrium, which is appropriate because you need to slow down here, pause, look up. It's nearly 80 feet to the luminous skylights, a volume so high it's really an outdoor space -- a place to congregate, watch the people, slowly climb the stairs or more quickly ride the long escalator. Houston has no other urban place, inside or out, that is so grand.

The one discordant note in this awesome space is the donor wall, a tall limestone cliff incised with the names of major patrons in alphabetical order. The letters are big, a running litany of prominent names covering the stone surface from floor to ceiling like overbearing wallpaper. Perhaps we need to be reminded that the museum is privately funded, but even the inscriptions on Roman monuments were not such prideful distractions.

The second floor is the quintessential art museum, rooms full of paintings bathed in soft natural light. It feels right because this is the traditional environment for these works. Before the age of museums, paintings were displayed in palaces, aristocratic homes and chapels, small-scale rooms illuminated by daylight. Early museums were installed in former palaces whose floor plans typically consisted of rooms en suite, that is, rooms in a row connected directly to one another. This is the plan of the Beck: groups of small rooms linked to larger galleries, a loop of spaces of varying shapes and sizes in which the small and large paintings are hung in the suitably proportionate places. Without Moneo's mastery, this collection of rooms would be a chaotic maze. But finding your way is almost effortless because the circulation path has been so well thought out.

And then there's the light, diffuse and constant throughout the day regardless of the weather. The design of the rooftop lanterns was studied for a year using a full-size mock-up in the museum's parking lot north of the First Presbyterian Church. Light entering through the louvered lanterns is reflected off sloping and curved ceiling surfaces before it reaches the wall where paintings are hung. Moneo used a similar arrangement in the Moderna Museet with less-than-satisfactory success, but the lengthy experimentation here seems to have made the difference in refining the concept.

All paths through the galleries return you to the big atrium to retrace your steps to the basement tunnels. There are few places to sit up in the galleries, and a lot to see. Your return visit should be as rewarding as the first because the architectural setting is strong without overpowering the other arts in its charge. In fact, the architectural qualities of the Beck building -- qualities of space, movement, a limited palette of beautifully detailed materials and, of course, light -- are as much on display as its paintings.

Houston architect Gerald Moorhead, FAIA, is contributing editor for Texas Architect and writes for other professional journals.

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