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Rice Building Workshop (RBW) Designs Cafe for the Menil Collection

The Menil Collection and Rice University’s Rice Building Workshop (RBW) have joined forces to design and construct a café across Sul Ross Street from the museum’s main entrance.

The project began earlier this year, when Menil Director Josef Helfenstein, inspired by RBW’s Solar Decathlon ZeRow House, approached Rice University architecture professors Nonya Grenader and Danny Samuels with the idea of working with Rice architecture students to design a museum café.

Helfenstein has long seen the need for such a gathering place, in keeping with the wishes of John and Dominique de Menil, who also envisioned a café to complement the museum, which opened in 1987. Said Helfenstein: “Designed to be in harmony with our green, residential surroundings, the Menil café will enhance the neighborhood as well as the visitor’s experience, being a place of welcome, reflection and refreshment.”
Both community-oriented and cosmopolitan, the café promises to be another architectural jewel on a campus that is already an international architectural destination, the home of Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano’s first U.S. commissions, the main museum building and the Cy Twombly Gallery.

“The Menil is one of the most significant buildings in the United States, not just in Houston, and to build on its campus is a lifetime dream of any architect,” said Sarah Whiting, dean of the Rice School of Architecture and the William Ward Watkin Professor of Architecture. “For our students to have that opportunity is astonishing.”

Last spring RBW students began work with Menil staff and the museum’s board of trustees, who had determined that the café will be built on the 50-by-64-foot plot of land located directly behind the Menil Bookstore (which is housed in one of the early 20th- century bungalows that characterize the neighborhood).

RBW then proposed three design concepts for the café structure. The one selected by the Menil takes inspiration from a modest source: the food truck. The new structure will feature a “service core” opening up to the outside and an expansive roof (slanted toward southern exposure) that encloses a tall indoor seating space and shelters an outdoor deck. Solid walls wrapping the west and north facades will block views of the parking lot (and, notes Helfenstein, can also be used as screens on which to project indoor and outdoor films). The glass-wall front of the café will face the pathway that leads from the Menil parking lot to the museum.

The 1,500-square foot café will include seating for approximately 40 (plus an equal number outside), and all of the kitchen and various support facilities required for such an operation.

Importantly, the Menil café will embrace the latest green technologies, involving minimal energy use, solar power, natural light, and all other aspects of sustainability.

This fall, RBW will develop a comprehensive design plan in complete detail, working with the Menil, professional consultants, and a contractor to substantiate and finalize all aspects of the project. In a subsequent studio course, students will prepare final construction documents.

Danny Samuels describes the proposed structure as “another instance on the Menil campus in which an object – whether sculpture, land art or architecture – engages directly with the surrounding green space.”

Construction is expected to begin next spring, with the café opening the following year.

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