piano and kahn


Big news from home over break last week was the opening of Renzo Piano’s addition to the Kimbell and the almost universally good press it’s received.  When the design was unveiled, it looked to be as modest and as deferential a scheme as you could get–across the park from the original, with new underground parking and a carefully proportioned space between, as well as a finely crafted roof that owed something to the Kimbell’s top-lit galleries, but that also played off of Piano’s history of experimenting with lightweight, shaded glass roofs.

From a site perspective, the new building solves the major problem that every visitor to the Kimbell  noticed even before they got in–you parked around back and shuffled in through the lower entrance instead of entering the building from the honorific, central bay on the park side.  There are several earlier landscape schemes that showed a small street running across the front of the museum, which would have at least made the front feel like a useful entrance, but city politics ended up making the entire site a park–hardly a bad thing, but a conundrum access-wise.  Kahn maintained a sort of fantasy about people walking across the park to get to the museum, but with all of the parking in back–in a heavily car-centric part of Fort Worth–that was never going to happen.  Piano’s addition apparently brings you up from the car parking and presents you with the Kimbell’s west elevation first, which seems like the best possible way to honor Kahn’s original idea.


As loyal readers will know, I’ve argued before that much of Piano’s work reads as a tribute to Kahn, and to the Kimbell in particular.  There’s a history there, in that Piano worked in Kahn’s office for six months on a scheme for a lightweight version of the Olivetti factory roof in Harrisburg, PA.  Subsequently, Piano was given the task of designing the Menil Collection museum in Houston, a project that Kahn had been working on at his death.  This project shows both the influence of the Kimbell and Piano’s riff on the provision of natural light through the roof; instead of post-tensioned concrete shells, Piano used ferrocemento fins that mitigated the centrality and hierarchy of the Kimbell, providing instead a more finely-grained ceiling and a more consistently diffused light.  (And yes, that’s a Nervi connection…) Piano’s subsequent museum work–at the Beyeler Foundation in Switzerland, or the Art Institute in Chicago–all plays on this theme of a lightweight, naturally illuminated ceiling.


Until now, the Nasher Gallery in Dallas was Piano’s clearest tribute to Kahn.  This building, opened in 2004, uses a thin scrim of perforated steel to bring in north light, and the character of the interior spaces is uncannily similar to that of the Kimbell.  Piano played a game here of proportions and materials, in that the major walls are clad in thin sheets of stone, mimicking Kahn’s but very clearly expressing their veneered status on their ends. 

The first round of interior images of the new Kimbell show something similar going on–though the material nod here is to the Kimbell’s concrete more so than its travertine.  Piano has taken the light-admitting roof one step further, including scrim at ceiling level that diffuses the light even further, but the effect is similar to both the Menil and the Nasher.

Considering the horrifying prospect of the 1989 plan to extend the Kimbell by simply adding more vaulted bays to the ends of the building, which would have both confused Kahn’s original intent and destroyed the amazing south garden by Noguchi, it’s hard to imagine a better outcome here.  The protests that Kahn alumni, preservationists, and Fort Worthians raised in response to Mitchell/Giurgola’s well-intentioned but in hindsight absolutely baffling scheme paid off.  The Kimbell has a worthy extension, museum-goers get to experience the original as Kahn intended, and Fort Worth gets a museum district with another world-class building.  And it only took 23 years to get there!

“Never doubt the power of many small voices to instill great change,” or something like that.

Kimbell Art Museum–Renzo Piano Addition

Site Plan with Piano addition at the top (west) (c) Kimbell Art Museum

Big news out of Texas today detailing plans by the Renzo Piano Building Workshop to–finally–extend Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum.  Images are here.

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.

South Elevation (c) Kimbell Art MuseumThe 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.