It’s little surprise that the Nancy and Rich Kinder Building, the trapezoidal edifice that’s housed the MFAH’s extensive permanent modern and contemporary art collections since opening in November, looks like a piece of art itself. Its translucent tubular pillars light up the night. Its roof and inner gallery ceilings are inspired by clouds. And the bronze sculptural pool placed outside its Main Street doors is a zen welcome. The Kinder, as we’re all calling it, is a $385 million beauty—named for the Houston couple who, along with Susan and Fayez Sarofim, funded this pièce de résistance of the MFAH’s decade-long expansion.
Famed New York-based architect Steven Holl (who was in charge of the much-vaunted Washington D.C. Kennedy Center expansion in 2019) designed the Kinder with the belief that any building he creates should be inspired by the site it’s constructed on, drawing upon open Texas skies and the Museum District itself. It’s resulted in a glorious project. The three-story building (four, if you count the two underground Insta-tastic tunnels that connect it to the rest of the MFAH’s 14-acre Sarofim Campus) boasts more than 100,000 square feet of exhibition space, increasing the MFAH’s room for showcasing art by a whopping 75 percent.
Holl’s ingenious design contrasts with the neoclassical style of the MFAH’s oldest building, 1924’s Caroline Wiess Law Building, located across the street from the Kinder, in a look-how-far-we’ve-come kind of way. It also manages to pack in a lot without making the Kinder feel crowded or claustrophobic. And we do mean a lot. There’s also a massive underground parking lot, a 215-seat theater, seven gardens, six reflecting pools along the building’s perimeter, and even restaurant space (occupied by the Jonathan Benno-led casual dinery Café Leonelli, and the Alain Verzeroli-headed fine-dining spot Le Jardinier, which are set to start serving in March and April respectively) that opens onto Isamu Noguchi’s Cullen Sculpture Garden.
Of course, a space this magnificent deserves the very best pieces. And the MFAH delivers on that front. An array of treasures by Picasso, Matisse, Pollock, O’Keeffe, and so many other artistic greats await, alongside eight new site-specific commissioned works by artists including Ai Weiwei and Trenton Doyle Hancock.
We’re looking forward to spending countless hours in this breathtaking space in the months and years ahead. Here’s what we’ll be staring at in awe.
The innovative lighting system
Displaying art that goes anywhere near the unforgiving Texas sun is a dicey endeavor—just ask the folks charged with protecting the Rothko Chapel’s works—but here the goal was twofold: to provide adequate, non-damaging lighting while also being cognizant of energy efficiency. The solution? A mix of programmed LED systems, designed with L’Observatoire International, and carefully chosen natural light filtering down from clerestory windows—windows above eye level—cut into the ceiling.
The immersive art
The first floor, a flexible blackbox setup, contains space for immersive installation projects, including The Hydrospatial City by Argentinian artist Gyula Kosice, a light-filled James Turrell piece, and one of Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Light Rooms, Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity.
Houston artisans were hired for the finishing touches, with Marek Brothers charged with overseeing the walls and ceilings, while local custom woodworkers Brochsteins handled the walnut linings in the 215-seat Lynn Wyatt Theater and multiple conference rooms, and the black limba used in the restaurant—wood that had been held in storage since the 1960s awaiting the right project. Southern Tile & Terrazzo was also brought in to handle the terrazzo floor. Marble used in this terrazzo matches the one the company made for the MFAH’s Brown Pavilion back in 1974, albeit with a mix of black, gray, and sage, making for a subtle difference in tone compared to the Kinder’s black, gray, and white floors.
The building cuts a striking figure, sitting like an enormous blown glass work. That look is achieved by covering the Kinder’s outer layer with 1,103 pieces of laminated glass half-cylinders of varying sizes, some even 20 feet long. These tubes capture light, and at night they’re illuminated in a variety of patterns, shapes, and colors, but they aren’t just pretty to look at. The way they’re suspended from the concrete walls—by steel and aluminum support structures—allows them to act as solar chimneys, an eco-friendly design approach that draws off and reduces heat that would otherwise have to be absorbed by the building itself.
The garden entrances
Seven gardens cut into the structure by design, each one denoting an entrance. The gardens are also deliberately visible from inside the building, so that when standing in the lobby, people will be able to see “lush Houston vegetation in four different directions,” according to the Holl firm.
The architectural nods
The gleaming white, three-story-high atrium is clearly a riff on Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim design, while details like the ground floor terrazzo have been seen as a hat tip to the oldest building on the campus, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Law Building, located across the street (and now connected by one of two new underground tunnels).
The site-specific commissioned pieces
The Kinder has placed six of its eight commissioned works outside or underground (perhaps to keep would-be influencers from clogging up the galleries proper?). Both of the two underground tunnels, Carlos Cruz-Diez’s Cromosaturación MFAH and Ólafur Elíasson’s Sometimes an underground movement is an illuminated bridge are sure to be hits, but so far our favorite is Cristina Iglesias’s, Inner Landscape (the lithosphere, the roots, the water), a kinetic pool located at the Main Street entrance.
Additional reporting by Emma Schkloven