In 1983, The Menil Foundation, one of the primary benefactors of the arts in Houston, received photographs of the frescoes broken into nearly 40 pieces. They were destined to be sold individually, forever destroying the beauty of the whole. After considerable research into their origin, the Foundation worked with both the Church and Government in Cyprus, and paid the ransom for the stolen pieces. A painstaking three-year restoration was undertaken in London, while the museum itself was designed in Houston.
It was important to all involved that the frescoes be displayed in a spiritual context, but one with a fresh, new meaning. The architecture of the building achieves that beautifully. Using the concept of the reliquary box (a container used to house sacred objects — think Raiders of the Lost Ark), the unassuming plain gray concrete exterior gives little hint of what is inside. The frescoes are placed as they would have been in the church, but the church is made of freestanding glass panels, beautifully lit so as not to take away at all from the ancient artworks. Surrounding the entire glass chapel is a suspended steel reliquary box, providing not only appropriate darkness, but a sense of the sacred as well. Between the box and the gray concrete walls, sunlight streams down from skylights high above. Stand at the edge and look up to see sky above; step into the box and you see nothing above but infinity.
It is truly difficult to explain the interplay of light and dark in this building. While the frescoes are definitely the museum's focus, I felt that the architecture stole the show. A simple little side garden with a stream flowing into a waterfall in the lobby completes the complex.
It is often the simplest things that are the most moving, and the thought and attention to detail in this building provide an elegant example of that.
Wilton Manors, Florida
July 22, 2001
From journal Houston's Hot Hot Hot!