Loyal readers will know that I wrote a book on Kahn a few years ago, looking at his working relationships with engineers and contractors and how these influenced his designs. The Kimbell was the greatest example of this–a museum that sprang entirely from Director Richard Brown’s desires, which evolved as Kahn explored options with him, but whose execution was influenced by Kahn’s willingness to listen (albeit sometimes testily) to local contractors and to his very pragmatically-minded engineer, August Komendant. Anyone who has read the book (there must be a couple of you out there) will know that I think the Kimbell is by far his best work, at least in America.
Past proposals to extend the Museum’s rather modest gallery spaces have met with extraordinary resistance. A 1989 plan by Kahn alumni firm Mitchell/Giurgola was widely panned, because it rather thoughtlessly extended the building’s famous cycloid vaults into the landscape without recognizing the proportions of the original. Kahn’s original scheme, in their defense, was supposed to be much larger, but the building as constructed boasted a particularly fine garden to its south, which would have been swallowed by the extrusion of the building’s structure. Piano’s selection last year was an inspired choice–not only is he the world’s top museum architect at the moment, he spent a brief period in Kahn’s office in 1966 and has always been something of a Kahn disciple. His designs for the Menil Collection in Houston and for the Nasher Sculpture Gallery in Dallas are both subtle tributes to Kahn’s skillful work with precisely filtered daylight at the Kimbell, albeit rendered in a much more technically expressive language.
The new scheme solves the one widely acknowledged major problem with the existing structure. Kahn never drove a car, and the Kimbell’s main entrance opens from the center of a more or less suburban park. Almost everyone arrives at the museum through the amazingly detailed–but clearly secondary–parking lot at the Museum’s rear, and the Piano building’s siting and underground car park will allow visitors to approach the Kahn building as he intended. There are a couple of obvious nods toward the original building–a tripartite division into three 100-foot bays that mirror exactly (maybe too exactly?) the Kahn parti, and a series of covered walkways and colonnades that look like clear references to one of Kahn’s earlier schemes for the Museum. Mostly, however, Piano’s acknowledgement of the masterpiece his structure will face seems like it will come through in the materials, details, and rhythm of the new building’s structure. Kahn believed in an all-pervasive order that would organize function, structure, and details, and this is reflected in all of Piano’s work.
Building next to anything as iconic as the Kimbell is bound to generate debate and argument, but to me this looks like a strong start.