A conversation with Steven Holl on the recently opened Kinder Building

Holl and Chris McVoy discuss the challenges of their recent project for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which features ribbon stairs, a glass tube facade, and a cloud-like roof.

Inaugurated on November 21st, the Kinder Building is the latest project by Steven Holl Architects for the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, one of the largest museum institutions in the United States. This concludes the process, which began with a competition involving 12 international firms and won by Holl in January 2012. In this conversation with Domus, Steven Holl and Chris McVoy, the office’s senior partner, talk about the genesis and challenges of a building that represents 20 years of experimentation on the typology of the museum.

The Kinder Building, which houses a collection of 20th- and 21st-century art, along with the Glassell School of Art (also by Holl, completed in 2018), thus becomes part of the Susan and Fayes S. Sarofim Campus next to Isamu Noguchi’s Cullen Sculpture Garden (1986). The main campus includes the original site of the museum, a neoclassical building by William Ward Watkin from 1924, the two extensions by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (Law Building, 1958 and 1974), and the Beck Building by Rafael Moneo (2000). Some underground passageways connect the buildings and house site-specific environmental works by Ólafur Elíasson (between Kinder and Glassell) and Carlos Cruz-Diez (between Kinder and Law).

Aerial view of the Nancy and Rich Kinder Building. Photo Iwan Baan

The recent history of the institution starts from the proposal of Steven Holl and Chris McVoy, ambitious as it substantially oversteps the brief’s limits. “We took risks”, Holl confirms, “it was a very fierce competition, also because in those years it was the largest for museums in the United States, in addition to the LACMA by Zumthor”. The brief of the competition asked for a project that would include a seven-storey car park, hence the studio’s decision to change the programme: “we thought of a concept that would start with education, in particular the new building for the Glassell School. The focal point of the museum’s mission is its relationship with the community and art education”. Holl adds: “it was a very radical move that involved breaking with the rules of the competition: in the end, however, we won by unanimous vote”.

Meanwhile, a new director was coming to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston just as the competition approached its end. In 2012, Gary Tinterow returned to Houston, his hometown, after 28 years at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The director and art historian was an intern there in the 1970s. Since taking office, Tinterow has given the museum a more international perspective while working for the local community through an inclusive and diverse program, while at the same time preserving the museum’s history. It was Tinterow himself who decided to move Alexander Calder’s white Mobile (1949) to the Kinder Building, where it dominates the entrance, over the sculptural staircase. Over the years, this work has been housed in all the main campus buildings. Chris McVoy also recounts that “it was Tinterow who proposed to use the same coarse-grained terrazzo that Mies used in the Law Building” and adds that “we agreed with this to preserve continuity with the historic building, but while Mies’ building has a green tone, we opted for a black and white terrazzo”.

The sculptural ribbon stair in the foyer of the building. Photo Iwan Baan

The first meeting between Steven Holl and “the big Texas sky”, the image guiding the Kinder Building project, took place in the late eighties. The American architect tells Domus via Zoom, from his archive and studio in Rhinebeck, that he went to Dallas at the time to commission a residence for Charles and Jessie Price, now known as Stretto House (1991). “I think it was my first trip to Texas. The first thing that impressed me was the size of everything. I noticed, for example, that the tables in the restaurants were something like three metres apart. Everything is big there. Then,” he continues, “I looked at the sky, and the feeling was that of a huge expanse, full of reflections. I’m originally from Washington State, where my eyes have been accustomed to a completely different atmosphere, given by a low and cloudy sky, in close relation to the water. In Texas, on the other hand, the sun is very high, and the clouds seem very high. The impression I had of that sky 30 years ago has come back as an inspiration for this project”.

Five key concepts define the Kinder Building: in addition to the integral experience of the campus we already mentioned, porosity is built through 7 gardens that break the perimeter of the building. Natural light is then obtained through the roof conceived as “luminous canopy”. Free circulation is defined starting from the exhibition halls, conceived as rooms designed on the golden proportion, in continuity with the outside, especially towards Main Street and its centuries-old oak trees. Another concept is that of “complementary contrast” with the materiality of the buildings on the campus, which prompted the decision for a translucent look for the new Kinder.

“Several people asked me what my favourite material was; I always said it was light,” says Holl, emphasising a concept that has characterised his work for years. And indeed this new museum illustrates this perfectly, gathering 20 years of experience and experimentation on this typology where light is more essential than ever for the relationship with what is on display. 

The office has managed to create a roof that literally seems to float: “the steel soul is hidden, and only the light cuts can be perceived. We are happy with the fact that our built version of the Texan clouds does not ‘sit’ on the vertical structures,” says Chris McVoy. Another surprising element is the ribbon staircase, whose steel structure contributes to this feeling of lightness. The senior partner says that they “worked on the precedent of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (2007) staircase” to make the boomerang staircase. “The structure”, continues McVoy, “is the self-supporting guardrail and the profiles are rounded, the result of welding a 12.7 cm half-pipe and steel plates: it is made like an aeroplane wing; planes form a volume, corbusian in a weird way”.

A watercolour by Steven Holl shows some of the key concepts of the project, such as the 7 gardens slicing the perimeter of the Kinder Building, and the continuity of new and old parts of the campus, including Holl’s Glassell School of Art (2018) and the Cullen Sculpture Garden by Isamu Noguchi (1986)

The biggest challenge, however, says Holl, was the facade: “it was all born from a model, as often happens in our office. We didn’t really know how to create that materiality, but after much experimentation, we managed to create that translucent effect with half-tubes of laminated glass with pvb”. McVoy adds that “this thick, expressive facade also considerably improves the energy performance of the Kinder Building”.

The story told by Holl and McVoy, who guide us through the key concepts, the famous watercolours, models and mock-ups, reveals collective experimentation, a process in which the entire staff participated, including project managers and interns. So we ask if this is the practices’ usual work structure: “I think there is a terrible tendency towards corporate in architectural firms today, but our office believes in an atelier-like dimension, whereby the projects are conceived starting from a suggestion reworked through a team effort over time,” Holl replies.

And the time between the museum’s conception and its opening was crucial: a museum designed eight years ago and opened during the Covid-19 global pandemic. “Covid will not redefine the way we do architecture from here on,” says Holl, “we have the vaccines coming, and sooner or later the pandemic will end, like any other pandemic. What is essential to me in an organic project, for example, natural ventilation and light, will not change, and that’s the way it has been since Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Houses”.

Nancy and Rich Kinder Building
As part of:
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Texas, USA
Steven Holl Architects
Project architects:
Steven Holl (principal), Chris McVoy (senior partner)
Project team:
Olaf Schmidt (senior associate), Filipe Taboada (project architect), Rychiee Espinosa, Yiqing Zhao, Lourenzo Amaro de Oliveira, Garrick Ambrose, Xi Chen, Carolina Cohen Freue, JongSeo Lee, Vahe Markosian, Elise Riley, Christopher Rotman, Yun Shi, Alfonso Simelio, Dimitra Tsachrelia, Yasmin Vobis, Yiqing Zhao (project team)
Associate architects:
Kendall / Heaton Associates
Project manager:
The Projects Group
Guy Nordenson & Associates, Cardno Haynes Whaley
MEP Engineer:
Climate engineers:
Lighting consultant:
L’Observetoire International
Cost estimator:
Venue Cost Consultants
Facade consultant:
Knippers Helbig
22,037 sqm

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