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.


For a few years now I’ve promised myself that I would take a day on the annual fifth year Boston field trip and go up to Exeter to see the Kahn library there.  Last year a colleague took the train up while I was scrambling back to Iowa early and he let me know that it was an easy hour-long ride through some scenic mill towns and a similarly easy walk across the (small) town to Exeter Academy.

Kahn was the first big research project I did when I moved to academia.  After seven years of hearing his name at Foster’s I was curious to see whether you could make the argument that he was a proto-high-tech architect, in addition to his well-known reputation for poetic, spiritually resonant space.  The link to me was irresistible, because if you could show that, you could then make the argument that a lot of high-tech is really more than the cold, mechanical imagery with which it’s been saddled.  So I wrote a few essays on four Kahn buildings–the Yale Art Gallery, Richards Medical Labs, the Salk Institute, and the Kimbell Art Museum–and showed (I think) that part of their poetic appeal lay in a real technical fluency.  That book, Louis I. Kahn: Building Art, Building Science, got some good reviews and won me a few ace lecture opportunities, but after five years of work I was ready to move along to Chicago.

Still, knowing some things about Kahn made Exeter irresistible.  I’d never been, and with a willing student and colleague, plus an alum who’s a good friend, we made the trek up Sunday.  I have to say, it’s one of those rare buildings–like Kimbell–where you know the layout and section and all the tricks cold but can’t believe how amazing it all is when it’s put together.  The interior space is so finely proportioned–and yet so impressive structurally–that it literally stopped us in our tracks.  We did what every architect does, which is to walk up the curved staircase to the main floor and quietly roll our heads back, looking up at the skylight with our mouths open like turkeys in the rain.  Exeter has a very generous visitor policy–if you sign the guest book, you get basically free reign–so we wandered for a couple of hours.  (And, by the way, the guest book alone is worth browsing).

Much of the building’s rhetoric is about layering–there’s the central concrete core with the big circular concrete cutouts, the square donut of stacks, the tables and carrels at the windows, and the brick exterior.  But within these are gaps that are occupied by services, clearly defined interfaces between materials, and circulation paths that brush the edges of sectional spaces brilliantly.  I admit that I had always slightly dismissed Exeter (and Rochester, and Ahmedabad) as the most backwards of Kahn’s buildings since they rely so heavily on brick instead of concrete–I left these out of the book entirely, in fact.  But now I’m not so sure.  There’s a decidedly archaic feel to the Library, especially in the exterior arcades.  But there’s also stainless steel ductwork that’s as expressive of the mechanical strategy as anything at Richards, and the concrete is as superbly executed as the Kimbell’s.  I left thinking that I’d seriously underestimated this strain of Kahn’s work–and maybe it needs someone to go back and show how it, too, took function and construction as the basis of its expression, too.

I was curious about the dining hall, which sits next to (actually almost on top of) the Library.  It was part of the same commission, yet it hardly shows up in any of the critical studies of Kahn’s work.  It was a pleasant surprise–a well executed but spatially less intricate mix of precast, in situ, and brick.  We puzzled for a while about its layout–it sits about 5° off of the Library’s axis–and finally realized that the chimney terminates one of the Academy’s long axes.  The slanted face looks west, and it catches the sunlight as you’re looking south in a way that punctuates that path really well.  I have no idea whether that was Kahn’s generating idea or not, but it’s a nice touch.  One that could use some further research..


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.