A rendering of the view of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, campus from the rooftop garden of the Glassell School of Art. Steven Holl Architects

What sets the expansion of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, apart is one of its secondary goals: to make the Museum District a real, walkable neighborhood.

Four years from now, Houston's Museum District may be completely unrecognizable. The recently unveiled plans for an expansion of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, include a dramatic, glowing new museum building as well as a new center for the Glassell School of Art, both designed by architect Steven Holl.  

The $450 million expansion for the MFAH will cost well more than Frank Gehry's $350 million subterranean extension for the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Houston plan isn't as pricey as Peter Zumthor's $650 million stem-to-stern reboot of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, but it's in the ballpark. Houston's plan might be more dramatic, though. And so far, it's on surer footing.

What may set the MFAH expansion apart, in terms of major U.S. cultural expansion projects, is one of its secondary goals: to make the Museum District a real neighborhood.

The glowing Nancy and Rich Kinder Building, the centerpiece of Steven Holl's expanded campus.

"What we anticipate doing is providing the infrastructure for the entire neighborhood," says MFAH director Gary Tinterow. "[The Museum District] has been plagued by insufficient parking, insufficient restaurant opportunities, insufficiently convenient public gathering space. Our campus renovation plan is designed to remedy all those matters."

At the heart of the proposal are two buildings: the new museum addition and the center for the attendant Glassell School of Art. Both will be statement projects by Holl, an architect whose name is always dropped in any conversation about the Pritzker Prize. (He picked up Japan's prestigious Praemium Imperiale award in 2014.) In addition to those projects, the campus will include the new Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation Center for Conservation, to be designed by Texas favorites Lake|Flato Architects.

Holl's preliminary design for the MFAH's Kinder Building will feature seven vertical gardens plus a series of reflecting pools, all assembled under a "luminous canopy," a concave, curving roof. “Imagine the big Texas sky,” Holl tells the Dallas Morning News's Mark Lamster, “big clouds pressing down on the roof, and it warps the roof and light slips on in through the sides.”

Still more dramatic may be the plans for the 14-acre area encompassing what will be known as the Fayez S. Sarofim Campus. That's in part because Steven Holl is known for designs that look holistically at landscapes in urban conditions. For Houston, the changes include two new public plazas, a rooftop sculpture garden, event spaces, two theaters (outdoor and indoor), a playground for children, and new restaurants (also outdoor and indoor). The campus aims to encourage the kind of urban development that has been elusive, to say the least, in Houston.

There will be parking, Tinterow says, make no mistake: 400 new spaces, albeit tucked mercifully underground. There's just no getting around it. "Like all great metropolises based on the automobile, there’s never enough parking," he says. (Echoing what Houston city planners hope to steer away from with the launch of a new city plan, Houston's first ever, due out some time this year.)   

Rendering of the new MFAH building as seen from the Cullen Sculpture Garden, which was designed by sculptor Isamu Noguchi and will be expanded under the plan.

"The Houston metropolitan area is larger than the state of New Jersey. If you don’t know the city well, it’s difficult to imagine the vast reaches," Tinterow says. "I lived in New York for 29 years. When people talk about walkability, that’s fine in small doses. When you have to go down from one side [of Houston] to the other, there’s really only one way to do it, and that’s in a car."

The real test of the campus design won't be whether it augurs a walkable Houston. The true measure of the plan will be whether visitors will walk the 15 minutes between the MFAH and the Menil Collection, an established museum in the district. As the museum director told Karrie Jacobs last October, "most Houstonians are not going to walk that." Hard as that might be for East Coast art lovers to imagine, it's correct. In the near future, though, visitors may find that they want to make that trek on foot—that they need to, in fact, to complete the experience.

What the new MFAH expansion means nationally is harder to gauge from a distance. Coming as it will on the heels of the Menil Drawing Institute, a new neighbor designed by the upstart Los Angeles firm Johnston Marklee and due in 2017, it's tempting to dream of Houston's Museum District as the new Third Coast, or maybe even something more central for the nation's cultural production.

For Houston, though, the expansion will be a baby step—a first foray into productive, walkable neighborhood design.

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