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Duelling Partners at the Kimbell Museum Louis Kahn vs Renzo Piano

Expanding the Kimbell Art Museum, Renzo Pianoʼs new lightweight pavilion duels discreetly with Kahnʼs original concrete vaulted masterpiece

‘What does the building want to be?’ In the case of the Kimbell Art Museum the fabled dictum of Louis Kahn resulted in a rightly revered single-storey structure of matched elegance and austerity.

Asking the same question of his new building for the museum, Renzo Piano could be categorical in listing its intent: discreet, subdued, modest, reverential and deferential towards the original architecture. If these stones, or concrete, could speak it would be in a perfectly modulated whisper. And all the auguries are good − not only did Piano work in Kahn’s office in the 1960s but when he won the MenilCollection commission in Houston he came to Fort Worth to study the Kimbell as prototype.

Yet any addition to a famous and much-loved building is fraught with risk, especially in the context of institutional trophy Modernist ‘masterpieces’. And with every museum expansion there is an added suspicion of self-aggrandisement; to quote Aalto out of context, that ‘architecture has an ulterior motive’, whether civic pride or a demonstration of the power of donor and board rather than any true necessity. Museum directors always claim they really have to expand simply to show the permanent collection, a mantra matched by the architect’s sworn desire to respect the original building, both oaths usually long forgotten by the gala opening.

In the case of the Kimbell, both claims have been fully honoured; as director Eric Lee happily explains, the new wing allows almost the entire collection to be displayed − 95 per cent of the works − and Piano’s pavilion not only respects Kahn’s building but reflects it, quite literally, from across the park, keeping a guarded distance in deference.

1aAerial view. The 65m distance between the two was carefully calibrated


web_7Stairs rise imposingly to Kahn’s somewhat sepulchral facade

The Kimbell has the advantage of a small but truly important collection, only 350 objects among which are stellar works by the likes of Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, many bought surprisingly recently. Indeed when the Kimbell opened in 1972 there was concern that there might not be enough art in the collection to fill the building. The Kimbell is notably well-endowed, meaning they can still buy key works and can hire an architect like Piano without being bogged down in the local politics of municipal financing.

The staff is small, bureaucracy minimal, the collection manageable, and the museum’s remit straightforward: to display a tightly-edited collection of major art works in an ideal environment. If the Kimbell’s purchasing power might stand comparison with the Getty, its scale and intimacy suggest the Frick, the chronological deployment of a world-class collection through a simple enfilade of adjoining rooms.


The cast concrete vaults of Kahn’s original Kimbell Museum

The new Renzo Piano pavilion provides space for the permanent collection while ensuring that visiting exhibitions will have the room they have previously lacked. More importantly, it frees up the Kahn building and allows it to resume some of its original schematic function and flow, shifting libraries, research, offices and administration to the new wing.

Thanks to the relative availability of land in Texas, even within a city like Fort Worth, the Kimbell has a large plot of park at its disposal so that Piano was able to build an entirely separate structure at a carefully judged distance from the Kahn building, facing it, as if parallel-parked across the lawn. Indeed judging the precise gap between these two pavilions − finally resolved at 65 yards from wall to wall, close enough for visitors to be able to cross yet far enough to maintain visual independence − was an essential part of the initial scheme, with Ben Fortson, vice president of the board even measuring out the ideal distance himself.

zoom_site_plan_01site plan

zoom_section_01site section

The space between the two buildings also provides for an underground car park, an unusually luminous space, strip-lit and painted white in contrast to most such stygian underworlds. The exit from the car park is by stair or glass lift emerging by the Piano building, ostensibly so all visitors will then have a view across to the Kahn wing. But in practical terms it seems perverse that you cannot also exit by the Kahn building as this underground space links them so conveniently.

As it is, visitors make their way across the lawn to reach the Kahn building, across a discreet stone path which serves as low-key bridge between the buildings. This landscaped lawn between the buildings is a verdant buffer-zone with Kahn’s restored water-garden and an imposing copse of trees, whose bosky depths conjure the sylvan glade of the museum’s famous Poussin, The Sacrament of Ordination.

These tall trees have to be regularly cropped in relation to Kahn’s famous curved roofs, but even so are sufficiently dense to almost obscure the buildings, both being such modest single-storey structures as in Texan vernacular might be termed ‘lowriders’.

The sophistication of the Kimbell is evident again, few institutions would develop important buildings by two famous architects, neither of which can barely be seen from the other, discreetly veiled by woodland instead.

Though aiming to echo elements of the Kahn building, Piano would hardly be so obvious as to reference the famous curve of its cycloid-vaulted roofs and opted instead for a simple roof of glass and steel with operative louvres. This has a practical problem that those outside Texas might not imagine, namely seasonal hail storms of exceptional violence, for which the roofing system can be adjusted for maximum deflection.

The most notable feature of the roof are the 29 pairs of coupled wooden beams of Douglas fir, specially brought down from Canada, of exceptional 100-foot length and attractive sheen, an off-white laminate polish which sets the tonal palette. The roofing structure also casts a dynamic shifting pattern of shadow upon the walls, a visual flourish abetted by strong Texan sun, while the generosity of the concluding canopy provides necessary protection for the wood.

2aKahn’s concrete barrel vaults are brought into the new building through floor-to-ceiling glazing

4Galleries are calm, neutral spaces for the display of a small but significant collection

zoom_detail_01detail section

Piano’s pavilion contrives to give the impression of being approximately the same dimensions as the Kahn opposite, though posited as an ‘open’ transparent structure as opposed to the more defensive aspect of the latter. Thus the Piano building weighs in at approximately 102,000 square feet compared with the 120,000 square feet of the Kahn. Indeed the very simplicity of Piano’s design might tempt one to paraphrase Venturi, suggesting a ‘decorated shed’ but without the decoration.

The view into the building is as important as the view out, not least as seen from passing traffic, and its exceptional transparency ensures direct sightlines all the way through from the back of the Piano across to the Kahn. Entering the building through the all-glass facade, you are welcomed by a typical Piano museum void, an empty space which eventually will have an entrance desk and cafeteria seating, the closest a single-storey building can get to an atrium, with the two main galleries opening off on either side.

To the north is a single small-scale room to showcase non-Western works; typically the Kimbell only owns eight African sculptures but they are among the most important in America. Leading off opposite is the West Gallery which ends in a curtain glass window-wall with a row of chairs, somewhat reminiscent of the seated viewing-area at the Beyeler Foundation (AR December 1997). Likewise in the adjoining Asian galleries there is a view up to the garden along a sloping grass-covered staircase, similar to the staggered lawn-ramp at the Nasher Sculpture Center in nearby Dallas.

Instead of Kahn’s travertine, much expertise has been deployed on the poured-in-place concrete walls, created with the Dottor Group which has long worked with Tadao Ando, not least on the Modern Art Museum just on the other side of the Kimbell. These 30-foot walls are exceptional for having so few tie-bar holes, only at the ends, and the precision of their construction ensures they seem to float above the wooden floors. Likewise their carefully controlled light-grey tone, with two per cent titanium in the concrete mix, has a rare silky finish, an unusual yet effective texture for the display of Old Masters. These walls also look their best thanks to the adjustable system of louvres and stretched scrim, which allows a maximum of filtered daylight.

The ‘breathing’ floor of white oak discreetly echoes the use of the beams deployed along the roof and AC venting has been perfectly integrated, rising through the gaps, to avoid the visual distraction of any dominant grille.

Separated by a small garden, glazed passageways lead to the rear section of the building which holds a small gallery for light-sensitive works, the library, classrooms and offices. It also features a 298-seat double-height auditorium of exceptional acoustics and raked red seating designed by Piano for Poltrona Frau. This is accessed by a narrowing canted double-stairway of vertiginous perspective, one of the few ‘dramatic’ flourishes to an otherwise entirely sober and quiet design.

floor_plan_zoomfloor plan

3athe long low building is invitingly transparent

5Piano duels discreetly with Kahn (right) across a tree-filled lawn

On the ground floor are offices whose large windows look out onto a concrete wall, a deep light well, which also provides the backdrop to the auditorium. In this termination of the building with an extensive broad blank wall, something like a moat, there is a distinct sense of Vauban’s military architecture, a concrete crevasse of tactical intent.

This abrupt conclusion suggests the building’s one possible failure, namely its defensive stance with regard to the surrounding cultural landscape. For the Kimbell is part of the Fort Worth Arts District, three aligned museums, the aforementioned Modern Art Museum completed by Ando in 2002, followed by the Kimbell and then the Amon Carter Museum built by Philip Johnson in 1961.

The Ando museum is just across from the Kahn Kimbell, which has an entrance that gives directly onto it. Just on the other side of the Piano pavilion, a few minutes up a hill, is the Amon Carter but this is now entirely blocked by the Piano building which provides no exit or entrance on that side. Indeed terminating in this concrete well shaft, the Piano denies any sense of the other museum, so close and yet now irretrievably isolated. Surely the Amon Carter should have been included in the circulation of visitors rather than being actively cut off?

But this quibble aside the Piano project ideally fulfils its brief, guarding a literal and creative distance from its predecessor while providing such serene exhibition spaces. To this end, it might prompt a concluding quotation from one of the Kimbell’s many masterpieces, Saenredam’s Interior of the Buurkerk, whose pristine walls provide, as the museum puts it, ‘clarity and harmony … and a crisp cool light that floods the interior’.

Fact File

Architect: Renzo Piano Building Workshop
Photographs: Nic Lehoux, Robert LaPrelle, RIBA

Related files

Readers' comments (1)

  • Excuse me, but this is just too vapid to qualify as architectural critique: "Indeed judging the precise gap between these two pavilions - finally resolved at 65 yards from wall to wall, close enough for visitors to be able to cross yet far enough to maintain visual independence - was an essential part of the initial scheme, with Ben Fortson, vice president of the board even measuring out the ideal distance himself." -Really? What makes Mr.. Fortson an expert in these matters?

    Readers might want to try:

    "The architectural qualities of the Piano addition are entirely beside the point, and I will not discuss them. If there are nice galleries inside the addition, the fact remains that those galleries, and the addition they are in, could have been built on the Kimbell-owned site to the southwest, and thus co-existed with the original park and trees. There was never a need to choose between the park and the addition; this was an invented problem, and is the opposite of what I would argue architects must do, which is to find a way to do the right thing, to do what is appropriate, however difficult that proves to be, and however long it takes." Robert McCarter

    Or: "One can easily imagine an outcome better in several respects—a shelter lighter, more ethereal, and livelier than this dull affair." -Martin Filler


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