The museum houses the art collection of Dominique and John de Menil – more than 10,000 works of ancient, African and surrealist modern art. Apart from the spaces dedicated to these works, the building also houses a picture frame workshop and a studio for art restoration and study. The pavilion has more than 2,800 sq m of galleries and public space. Located in the park of a 1920’s residential neighbourhood, the museum building has the same proportions and uses the same building materials as the surrounding houses.
Many of the buildings located around the Menil Collection were purchased as storage and study facilities for the works of art and it was decided that the museum would be designed to fit in with them, creating a museum village. At the behest of Dominique de Menil, the museum itself remains domestic in proportion, following the low lines of the neighbouring bungalows, recreating their deep porches. The museum’s grey cypress cladding also compliments the ‘Menil grey’ paint used on many of the surrounding houses.
The museum is divided into two distinct parts. On the ground floor the public gallery spaces are distributed along a 320ft (150m) central ‘spine’. Galleries open onto a tropical winter garden for extra light. The roofline is broken at one end with the only upper-floor rooms – the ‘treasure house’ – a climate-controlled archive reserved for scholars and conservators.
The guiding principles of the project were the use of natural light and the conservation of works of art. Dominique de Menil’s brief required that works should be viewed under daylight, with all its shifting moods through the day and season. To this end, a special ‘solar machine’ was built with Ove Arup & Partners, to evaluate the light’s behaviour at various angles, the mechanics of the multiple refractions, and options for the filtration of UV rays.
In order to control and modulate both natural and artificial light, experiments were also conducted with various structural materials. This resulted in the creation of a curved structural element made of 25mm thick ferro-cement, which became known as a ‘leaf’. It has a cross section of 130 x 90cm and its thickness varies. Replicated 291 times, these leaves became the inner layer of the roof whose main function is to filter daylight. Each leaf is held in place on a steel grid.
Because of the vast number of pieces in the collection, and for conservation reasons, a rotation system was put in place so that some 200 works of art are on display at any given time.
The Menil Collection opened to the public in 1987.
In 1992, Renzo Piano Building Workshop was again commissioned by Dominique de Menil, this time to build a separate pavilion dedicated to the work of Cy Twombly.