In 2006, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, approached Renzo Piano to design an addition to Louis Kahn’s masterpiece. Piano, Hon. FAIA, was a logical choice. He had to his credit two Texas museums—the Menil Collection and the Nasher Sculpture Center—that were themselves acknowledged masterpieces. And he had plenty of experience working on expansion projects for respected cultural institutions: the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. By all accounts, though, Piano was at first reluctant. It was a risky commission. In 1989, the first architect who accepted it, Romaldo Giurgola, was publicly excoriated for his proposal to duplicate Kahn’s design at each end. “Why ruin the masterwork of Kahn’s life with such an ill-considered extension?” asked a letter to The New York Times; signatories included Philip Johnson, Richard Meier, FAIA, Frank Gehry, FAIA, and James Stirling, Hon. FAIA. The expansion was cancelled, and Giurgola retreated to Australia.
At that point, the preference of the Kimbell trustees, stung by this episode, was to build nothing at all. But in subsequent years, it became evident that the museum had outgrown its original home: It needed gallery space for temporary exhibits, classrooms for its educational programs, a more commodious library, a larger auditorium, and more parking. Eventually, the museum acquired land for expansion across the street from its rear entrance, a site that faced the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, designed by Tadao Ando, Hon. FAIA. This location had the advantage of entirely removing the addition from the immediate vicinity of the Kahn building.
Piano eventually accepted the commission, and spent several months working on a preliminary design. As the project developed, however, it soon became clear that the site was simply too disconnected from the museum, both functionally and symbolically. When someone suggested that the lawn facing the front of Kahn’s building might be a better location, Piano immediately endorsed the option.
In 2008, when Piano had just completed his California Academy of Sciences project in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, he was asked whether he took Herzog & de Meuron’s de Young Museum, which stands opposite, into account. His tactful answer was that he didn’t think much about it. “This is what you get when you are yourself and they are themselves,” he said. The two contrasting museums barely acknowledge each other since they are more than 600 feet apart. But in Fort Worth, Piano and Kahn’s buildings would be much closer—less than a third that distance. That’s close enough for a real architectural conversation. But what do you say to a masterpiece? “Make room for the new kid on the block” or “Don’t mind me”?
The long, low façade of Piano’s addition exactly mirrors Kahn’s tripartite design—two solid walls flanking a glazed entrance—but the overall effect is much more low key than its celebrated neighbor. There are no curved vaults, no reflecting pools or sparkling waterfalls, no grove of delicate yaupon holly trees as in Kahn’s entry court. Piano yields pride of place to the master.
In the 1960s, Piano worked briefly in Kahn’s office, and though his architecture is generally lighter and favors steel rather than concrete, he is in many ways following in Kahn’s footsteps. The Nasher, for example, with its series of bearing walls spanned by vaulted roofs, is distinctly Kahn-like. In the Kimbell addition, however, Piano goes further and actually echoes many details from Kahn’s building: not only the tripartite plan but also the double stair, the deep light-well illuminating the basement, the strip of glass separating the roof structure from the walls, the same floor patterns reflecting the structure above, the same size concrete columns. There are some important differences: the exterior walls are concrete instead of travertine; the end walls are transparent rather than solid; and the galleries are spanned by bleached, laminated Douglas fir beams instead of concrete cycloid vaults, though Piano did keep the same 104-foot distance. The wooden beams are a masterful touch—Piano had earlier considered glass beams—as they give the building a primeval quality, related to, but different from, Kahn’s vaults.
The addition consists of two parts. The front section, which faces the Kahn building, is glass-roofed and contains a lobby/reception space, flanked by galleries. The rear section, separated by a landscaped slot that recalls the courtyards in Kahn’s building, is bermed with an accessible sod roof. Within are a largely windowless gallery for works that require extreme light control, teaching spaces, the library, and an auditorium. Thus, although the addition is almost as large as the original building (100,000 square feet versus 120,000 square feet), it seems much smaller. The parking garage is located beneath the lawn that separates the Piano pavilion from the Kahn building.
Ever since Piano was commissioned to design the Menil (a project initially undertaken by Kahn but curtailed by his death in 1974), he has excelled at art galleries, and the top-lit ones in his Kimbell pavilion do not disappoint. Roofed entirely in fritted glass shaded by adjustable louvers (which have embedded photovoltaic cells), the galleries receive natural light that is further diffused by a fabric scrim. The design of Piano’s gallery roofs has grown increasingly discreet since the Menil, and this one makes no grand architectural statement. In that sense, it resembles 19th-century galleries whose flat glass ceilings give no hint of the greenhouse structures above.
As in the Kahn building, the 104-foot clear spans allow great flexibility in display arrangement. Eleven-foot-tall movable panels are covered in the same ivory-colored cotton fabric. Unlike Kahn’s vaulted galleries, however, which offer a strong architectural frame for exhibitions, the Piano galleries are more neutral. The exterior walls are concrete rather than travertine. The art was being installed the day I visited, and such works as four of François Boucher’s monumental mythologies fairly sparkled against the pale concrete. Just as the ultimate test of a concert hall is how the music sounds, a gallery only comes into its own once the art is hung. Eric Lee, the director of the museum, sounded gleeful as he described his pleasure at seeing the familiar paintings in their new surroundings.
The interior of the addition is very much the architect “being himself.” By my count, the Kimbell is Piano’s 20th art museum, and many familiar motifs are in evidence: the all-glass roof; carefully-wrought structural details, glass balustrades with wooden handrails, and “Renzo red” seating in the auditorium. Mechanical services are discreetly integrated: a space beneath the gallery floor serves as an air-conditioning plenum, and air is diffused into the room via open joints in the wood strip flooring. One of the most theatrical spaces in the building is a pair of stairs leading down to the auditorium—since the flanking concrete wall is canted, the stair narrows as it descends, creating a forced perspective. The exposed cast-in-place concrete in the building deserves mention: It is as smooth as silk and has an unusually light color (the engineered mix is 2 percent titanium by volume). Another detail: the form ties are generally left exposed, as in the Kahn building, except in the galleries, where they would have been a distraction. There, the walls are cast without any ties, using special structural formwork.
Kahn was 71 when the Kimbell opened in 1972; Piano is 76 now. In Fort Worth, we witness both architects at the top of their games. In the intervening 40 years, however, building technology has evolved. Piano’s building has more sophisticated environmental systems, the details are more refined, the hardware more precisely engineered. In the Kahn galleries, natural light is controlled by placing black felt strips inside the light diffusers to reduce reflection, or by spreading a tarpaulin over the skylights on the roof; in the Piano building, if you want less light in the galleries, you press a button.
Yet technology exacts a price. There is something endearing about Kahn’s sometimes crude details: the rough, uneven surface of his concrete, the sturdy solidity of the white oak cabinetwork—and, of course, the uneven, ever-changing light. The vaults, especially, give the building an archaic, timeless quality. Like Kahn, Piano is a humanist, but his architecture is more precise, cooler, and feels less tolerant of human frailty. The Piano pavilion demonstrates how far we have come, but also what we have lost in the process.
Those who feared that any addition to Kahn’s museum would compromise his masterpiece should feel reassured. In fact, the Piano pavilion enhances our experience of the Kimbell in two important ways. Standing in the lobby of the new building, we have a panoramic view of Kahn’s magnificent porticos that most visitors did not previously experience. Especially at night, when Kahn’s travertine glows, his modernist palazzo is a revelation. The entry sequence is different now, too. With his design, Kahn—who was not a driver—imagined that visitors would walk around the building from the parking lot and enter from the front; in fact, most people used the rear entrance. Today, visitors who park in the underground garage will climb the stairs or take the elevator and, when they emerge in the portico of the Piano pavilion, their attention will immediately be drawn to the Kahn building. When they then cross the lawn they will enter the building through the grove of holly trees, just as Kahn intended.
Not many architects would have had the confidence to take Piano’s self-effacing approach. His careful deference should only increase our admiration for his not-inconsiderable achievement: to create a much-needed expansion that neither upstages nor in any way diminishes the original, and subtly enhances the visitor’s experience. No longer alone, the Kahn building is now in conversation with an admiring successor.
Click here for more photos of Piano's pavilion.
For more on the Renzo Piano Pavilion at the Kimbell Art Museum, including critiques, videos, and photo galleries, click here.
Project Renzo Piano Pavilion, Fort Worth, Texas
Client Kimbell Art Museum
Architect Renzo Piano Building Workshop, Genoa, Italy—Mark Carroll (partner-in-charge); Onur Teke (associate-in-charge); Shunji Ishida (partner); Daniel Hammerman, Shunta Ishida, Emily Moore, Alberto Morselli, Marco Orlandi, Daniele Piano, Sara Polotti, Danielle Reimers, Etien Santiago, Federico Spadini, Fausto Capellini (team); Francesco Terranova (models)
Architect of Record Kendall/Heaton Associates, Houston—Laurence C. Burns Jr., FAIA, Nobuhiko Shoga, AIA, Daniel Dupuis, AIA, Saman Ahmadi, AIA, Michael Ta, Jing Gu, Jaime Alvarez, Assoc. AIA, Ai Kawashima
Project Manager Paratus Group
Structural Engineer Guy Nordenson and Associates; Brockette, Davis, Drake (consultant to construction manager)
M/E/P Engineer Arup
Civil Engineer Huitt-Zollars
Landscape Michael Morgan Landscape Architecture, Pond & Co.
Lighting Arup Lighting
Acoustical Harvey Marshall Berling Associates
Façade Consultant Front
Construction Manager The Beck Group
Size 101,130 gross square feet
Cost $135 million
Material and Sources
Acoustical Ceilings Sadi Poliarchitettura (suspension grid) sadi.it; Baswaphon (plaster) baswaphon.com
Air Devices Halton halton.com; Titus titus-hvac.com
Art Hanging System Takiya takiya.com
Auditorium Seating Poltrona Frau www.poltronafrau.com
Bridge Bearing Connections Mageba magebausa.com
Building Graphics DCL
Chairs Bernhardt bernhardt.com; Knoll knoll.com; Stylex stylexseating.com
Compact Shelving Spacesaver spacesaver.com
Concrete Capform capforminc.com; Dottor Group dottorgroup.it
Curtainwall System and Skylights Seele seele.com
Custom Steel Components Tripyramid tripyramid.com
Dimming System Philips Strand Lighting strandlighting.com
Door Hardware Blumcraft crl-arch.com; Sargent sargentlock.com; Von Duprin allegion.com
Elevators/Escalators C. Lindsey Designs clindseydesigns.com; EMR Elevator emrelevatortx.net
Faucets Toto totousa.com; Vola vola.com
Fire Door Won-Door wondoor.com
Floor Boxes FSR fsrinc.com; Legrand legrand.us
Gallery Scrim Designtex designtex.com
Glulam Beams Structurlam structurlam.com
Grating Ohio Gratings ohiogratings.com; Hendrick Architectural Products hendrickarchproducts.com
Green Roof Hydrotech hydrotechusa.com
Interior Glass DGB Glass dgbglass.com
Insulation Dow Chemical building.dow.com; Owens Corning owenscorning.com; Roxul roxul.com
Lighting Bega (exterior) bega-us.com; iGuzzini (exterior, interior ambient) iguzzini-na.com; Io Lighting (interior ambient) cooperindustries.com; Lighting Services (gallery track) lightingservicesinc.com
Mechanical Louvers Airolite airolite.com
Metal Panels Armetco Systems armetco.com
Millwork Brochsteins brochsteins.com
Moveable Partitions Goppion goppion.com
Office Furniture Geiger geigerintl.com
Operable Partitions Modernfold www.modernfold.com
Ornamental Metals Metalrite metalrite.com
Photovoltaics GIG Holding gig.at
Precast Treads and Wheelstops Dallas Cast Stone dallasstone.com
Roof Hatch Bilco bilco.com
Stainless Steel Doors UBS ubsdoors.com
Structural Thermal Break Schoeck schoeck.com
Tables Davis davisfurniture.com; Herman Miller hermanmiller.com; Knoll knoll.com; Riva 1920 riva1920.com
Toilet Accessories Bobrick bobrick.com
Toilet Partitions Global Partitions globalpartitions.com
Upholstery Knoll knoll.com
Waterproofing W.R. Grace graceconstruction.com
Wood Flooring Woodwright woodwright.net