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FORT WORTH, Texas — The Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, arguably already has one of the best museum buildings in the world. The Louis Kahn-designed structure, with its rows of vaulted ceilings in concrete and celebrated “silvery” light gives the displayed art a unique monumentality, whether it’s the natural sunlight dissipated through the curved skylights or the illumination haloed in the ceiling’s arches.
Yet the museum has grown a lot since it opened in 1972, and it’s not easy to expand on what some have deemed architectural perfection. So to add to the museum a whole new building has been constructed 65 yards away, facing the modernist Kahn building through an orderly thicket of trees and neatly trimmed sprawl of grass. Designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano with the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, it takes some of the same ideas of materials for a museum, while attempting to pay its respects to the architecture before it and have a presence of its own.
“Many people feel like it’s a conversation through the ages,” Eric M. Lee, director of the Kimbell, said on a preview tour of the expansion. Paintings were still being placed on walls and the new auditorium was getting its final touches, but you could still see the space, which started construction in 2010, finally reaching its completed statement in that conversation. The Renzo Piano Pavilion, as it is being called, is a similar celebration of materials as the Kahn building, with its “breathing” wood floors that have a delicate system of flowing air to manage dust, its broad glass windows, and concrete walls.
Piano and Kahn are very different architects, although Piano worked with Kahn early in his career and has certainly never been afraid to make a statement. Although where his iconic buildings like the Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre in New Caledonia and the Centre Pompidou in Paris seem to respond to the existing presences in the architectural landscape like traditional wood constructions or the inner infrastructure of a building, Kahn was much more about his own vision of monumentality in the shapes of modernism.
Here at the Kimbell, Piano is very much responding to Kahn, using a specially mixed and poured concrete that was formed on site as an interior wall that is incredibly smooth to the touch, getting its own silvery lightness from being two percent titanium. Where Kahn drifted in the light through almost hidden systems and closed off views to the outside world, Piano has open windows everywhere that give views toward the older Kimbell building and the landscape around it, as well as framing other sites of the Fort Worth Cultural District such as the Will Rogers Memorial Center whose tower rises up as if framed in one window where a staircase on the exterior seems to take the eye to the vista.
However, just because it’s a less introspective building doesn’t mean it’s not also aiming to transport viewers into an experience with the art, which is focusing on works that the Kimbell has had to keep in storage due to their lack of space, with galleries on Asian, Pre-Columbian, African, and Oceanic art. The exhibition starting in the temporary exhibition gallery is highlighting the Kimbell’s own rich collection of European paintings, including the recently acquired “Torment of Saint Anthony” by a preteen Michelangelo (the only work by the painter in the United States), and pieces by Caravaggio, Velázquez, La Tour, and El Greco. The movable walls actually use the same fabric as those in the existing building, yet the shade of the new concrete is all its own, and the non-Western art, as well as many of the European works, really does get a pop to its color from the soft hue.
In February, the European paintings will be replaced with an exhibition of Samurai armor, where the three dimensions of the pieces should be a good test for the new museum’s flexibility. The new building adds about 101,130 square feet to the Kimbell’s existing 120,000 square feet, along with a 298 seat auditorium and a research library.
Perhaps the two most interesting features of the new building actually deal with what’s outside. A beautiful green roof with a lawn and trees is accessible even when the museum is closed. You walk up a slope and see the tiered glass of the roof and can see down into the light well that gives added illumination to the building, another nod to Kahn. Then there is the new parking garage hidden beneath the grass on the side of the building facing the Kahn, where visitors will now be directed to what was originally intended to be the museum’s entrance, although now there are two portals into the galleries that you can choose out on the lawn.
Museums might end up being Piano’s defining legacy, with the Kimbell joining its nearby neighbor the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas along with the Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Wing, especially with his design for the Whitney Museum of American Art currently taking shape along the High Line in Manhattan. It’s a huge task to try to expand on and complement the Louis Kahn-designed Kimbell, but the new pavilion has deftly grasped that most valued of architectural materials — light — and given the museum a new place to experiment with what illumination can do for our experiences with art.
The Renzo Piano Pavilion at the Kimbell Art Museum (3333 Camp Bowie Blvd, Fort Worth) opens on November 27.
Disclosure: The author’s transportation and accommodations for this press event were paid for by the Kimbell Art Museum.