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Modern Design for Modern Art

The new Steven Holl–designed gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston upholds the classic white-walled art world aesthetic with an architectural twist.

By Rachel Gallaher

An aerial view of the new Nancy and Rich Kinder Building at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, designed by architect Steven Holl. Image by Peter Molick, Thomas Kirk III.

Opened at the end of November, the new Nancy and Rich Kinder Building at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is an eye-catching ode to simplicity and the first space dedicated the comprehensive display of the institution’s international collections of modern and contemporary art.

Designed by Steven Holl Architects as the third gallery building on the MFAH Susan and Fayez S. Sarofim Campus, the Kinder Building unites the property horizontally, while maintaining its architectural integrity. The all-white, geometric form stands with the Caroline Wiess Law Building (designed in the 1920s by William Ward Watkin, with later extensions by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe) and the Audrey Jones Beck Building (designed by Rafael Moneo, opened in 2000), and complements the adjacent 1986 Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden, designed by Isamu Noguchi.

Ground floor atrium at the Nancy and Rich Kinder Building at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Image by Peter Molick.

The three-story building will house galleries that feature a range of works from paintings and sculptures to work craft and design, video, and immersive installations. A flexible black-box gallery at the street-level entry will offer rotating immersive installations.

“In the dynamic spaces that Steven Holl Architects has designed for the Nancy and Rich Kinder Building, our distinctive holdings of modern and contemporary art will soon have the showcase they deserve,” says Gary Tinterow, director and the Margaret Alkek Williams Chair at MFAH. “This area of our collection continues to grow rapidly, thanks to the exceptional endowment for acquisitions provided by our donors. We are thrilled that we can now present recent purchases and our historic acquisitions in depth and breadth, bringing our audiences a wealth of recognized masterpieces as well as discoveries by lesser-known artists.”

Looking out from the ground level at the Nancy and Rich Kinder Building at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Image by Peter Molick.

Rooted in the idea of porosity, the design of the building opens the ground floor at all elevations, with seven gardens slicing through the perimeter and providing access points in various areas. Standing in the vast new lobby, guests can view gardens in four directions, connecting them to the rest of the campus, as well as providing a sense of vitality amid the sleek minimal interiors. Concave curves, inspired by cloud circles, make up the roof geometry, and the interior architecture takes on angular forms, some overlapping and swooping in sheetlike arrangements—their all-white shade places the art front-and-center, but the origami-like shapes reflect an artistic, design-conscious energy that, even in the background, is striking.

The exterior of the Kinder building, comprising translucent glass tubes, appears marble-like during the day, while at night it glows softly like a beacon and reflects in the nearby water gardens. These tubes, which run vertically up the building’s façade, are reminiscent of both organ pipes and plastic PVC tubes (or the cardboard tubes used to carry posters/art), a delightful high-low mashup that strikes at the heart of creativity and the ever-blurring lines between art and design.

Detail view of the origami-like ceiling at the Nancy and Rich Kinder Building at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Image by Peter Molick.

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