Sunday, January 23, 2011

Sacred suburb

Although I've been told that you could drive forty miles in any direction and still be in Houston, the area (Montrose I think is the name) we're in feels old suburban. Houston's in the heart of car country (you see the great petroleum refineries of Galveston as you fly in), but you can walk (yes, walk!) in fifteen minutes from my friend's mother's place to a sort of museum district, the quietly impressive complex of the Menil Collection.

A deliberately unimposing Renzo Piano-designed main museum - in which a Kurt Schwitters exhibition offered a recreation of his famous Merzbau (left) - anchors a series of other spaces in a near silent residential neighborhood free of commerce. (No coffee shop!) The most famous part of the complex may be the Rothko Chapel, but my breath was taken away by Dominique de Menil's final project, the 1997 "Byzantine Chapel." Inside a bunker-like building, two 13th century frescoes looted from a Cypriot church (the looters had broken them in 38 pieces which they intended to sell separately) and saved by the de Menil Foundation are presented in a quite extraordinary setting designed to undo the vandalism and restore their religious power: a virtual church designed by architect François de Menil. I don't think I can describe the experience of that space within a space (actually outside of space, since the vault's ceiling is invisible in the dark, all light either radiating from luminous glass or natural light washing down the far concrete walls). The suggestion that it's a kind of reliquary box doesn't quite describe it; it feels as much like a kind of extraterrestrial mausoleum of a vanished earthly civilization. I explored it from every angle like a reverent moth, unable to keep pace with waves of feeling: wonder, sadness, desolation, joy, calm... as it seemed old and new, intimate and grand, abstract and concrete, dead and alive. The frescoes themselves are only a small part of it, necessary but not sufficient.

I'll just say it's a reason to go to Houston.

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