Wilderness Tamed

Louis Kahn was a great talker as well as a great architect, famed for giving mesmerizing lectures at the University of Pennsylvania, where he dispensed his mystical pronouncements like gumballs. All that talking and ruminating on the nature of things is probably one reason it took him almost eight years to complete the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. The result was well worth the wait. Opened in 1972, the rippling series of concrete-and-travertine vaults stands today as his masterpiece and one of the finest museums of the 20th century. After all these years, the gentle, celestial light that tumbles from his ceiling’s silvery hollows remains the benchmark to which all museums aspire.

Like Kahn, the Kimbell also does a lot of talking. Sited on a large city block in Fort Worth’s cultural district, Kahn positioned the museum so that it engages in a perpetual dialogue with the Will Rogers Memorial Center and the Amon Carter Museum. But the most important conversation is surely with the rolling landscape in between the three venues. An allée of stately elms, which had originally been part of a grand approach to the Will Rogers auditorium, was the inspiration for Kahn’s rows of cycloid vaults. The century-old trees divided the site in half, cosseting the Kimbell in a snug, green enclosure while allowing Kahn to set up a poetic contrast between that age-old duo, civilization and nature. The tension was the source of the design’s brilliance: the man-made world of the museum versus the immeasurable vastness of the Texas plain; the solidity of the building versus the void of the great “out there.”

But now those original elms are gone, and a fifth participant has joined the conversation, a new addition to the Kimbell designed by the Renzo Piano Building Workshop. The Piano Pavilion — yes, it’s named after the architect — sits across from the Kimbell, on axis with its front door, smack in the middle of the garden. Its arrival has dramatically altered the group dynamic, upsetting the delicate balance Kahn sought to achieve. Though the changes are jarring, they would have been acceptable if Piano’s architecture were more worthy of the storied setting.

The Kimbell built the addition for perfectly rational reasons. Blessed with ample resources, it has steadily grown its fine collection of Renaissance and modern art. Piano’s small, unassuming addition was intended to give the Kimbell some much-needed new galleries, along with all the modern support spaces museums insist they need. But for Kahn’s partisans, the new addition is nothing less than an unmitigated disaster. Wiel Arets, now dean of the Illinois Institute of Technology, argues that locating the pavilion in the garden is the equivalent of putting “an addition in front of the White House, in Washington.” The siting has been severely criticized by two prominent Kahn scholars, Washington University architecture professor Robert McCarter, and William Whitaker, curator of the University of Pennsylvania’s architectural archives. Nathaniel Kahn, whose documentary “My Architect” introduced his father’s work to wide audience, worries that “the magic” has been lost. 

There is a good deal of truth in their criticism, yet it doesn’t tell the whole story. Certainly, calling the Piano Pavilion a disaster seems to go too far. In designing the addition, Piano faced a nearly impossible problem. Attaching a new wing to the original building was a dead letter. The Kimbell still hasn’t recovered from the debacle of its first expansion attempt in 1989, when Romaldo Giurgola — a friend of Kahn’s and a member of a group of architects dubbed the Philadelphia School — designed an addition that would have extended Kahn’s vaults to the north and south. The proposal provoked such outrage that a group of prominent architects led by Philip Johnson denounced the plans in The New York Times. 

Kahn anticipated that the Kimbell might eventually need more space and, before his death in 1974, recommended that the museum reserve the parking lot behind the building for an addition. But that site had its own drawbacks. Kahn intended for visitors to enter the museum on foot after a circuitous pilgrimage around the outside of the building. To heighten their sensory awareness and prepare them for the art inside, Kahn created a choreographed procession in which museum-goers become mindful of the shifting light, the splashing water in the fountain, 

the crunching gravel in the grove of yaupon hollies at the entrance. But what he forgot was that this is Texas. Once visitors parked their cars, no one bothered to take the long walk around to the front. They simply went in through a back door next to the parking lot. 

Had Piano followed Kahn’s instructions and built the addition in the lot across the street, it’s likely that nobody besides architecture aficionados would ever have bothered to go through the front door again. The museum would also have found it difficult to construct an underground tunnel to connect the two buildings for art-handling purposes, because there is a large pipe below the street, Van Cliburn Way. At the last minute in the design process, Piano switched course and announced he was moving the pavilion to the garden. 

Given the complexity of the decision, it’s hard to fault the pavilion simply for its location alone. But if you’re going to mess with a masterpiece, you had better come up with something worthy of the impertinence. Placed as they are, face to face across the lawn, the two buildings can’t help but be viewed as equals. Yet Piano’s strategy was to make his $135-million addition subservient to Kahn’s. Every design decision is either a riff on Kahn’s architecture, or its reverse: The walls of Kahn’s building are solid and earthbound. Piano’s are glass, weightless as a soap bubble. Kahn’s building is organized in three sections. So is Piano’s. Kahn’s roof is composed of rows of rounded vaults. Piano’s linear sections are flat, covered with solar panels. The result is that Piano’s building is like the mythical golem, with no life of its own. 

Piano’s architecture is always subtle, but here it is unobtrusive to a fault. He sinks the pavilion deep into the slope, resulting in a long, low-slung structure that feels more like a shed than an important civic building. The proportions of the thick, 100-ft-long beams of Douglas fir used to support the roof seem far too monumental for such a height-challenged structure. And what’s the good of an effervescent glass pavilion if the shades must always be drawn to protect the art from the harsh Texas sun? 

Still, even when Piano is mimicking Kahn, many of his architectural details are beautifully executed. The bluish-gray concrete walls, infused with titanium, have the quality of fine suede. While the walls are a bit dark, especially compared to the creamy travertine in Kahn’s building, they make the reds and golds of the Kimbell’s Renaissance paintings really pop. The canted walls of the main stairs add real dynamism to the simple act of moving between levels. And yet, Piano flops in the one area where he has gained the most renown: the overhead lighting system. It’s not that the natural light that infuses the galleries is wrong; it’s just as gentle as the light in the Kahn building. But Piano concocted a clunky, hardware-heavy, three-ply layer of scrims and diffusers to achieve what Kahn and his lighting designer, Richard Kelly, accomplished effortlessly with a simple slot at the top of the cycloid vaults.  

There’s no doubt that Piano’s building changes Kahn’s intent in a fundamental way. The view from the Kimbell porch is no longer of the open Texas landscape, but of a building. The wilderness has been tamed, a campus created. In a way, it’s a very European gesture, this desire to square things off and to use buildings to define and corral the boundaries of open space. 

There is one big advantage of having the Piano Pavilion located in the garden, which has been replanted with elm and oak saplings. It sits on top of an underground garage. Now, when people park at the Kimbell, they rise up in a glass elevator, and the first thing they see is Kahn’s facade. It’s not the same, of course, as making the pilgrimage around the building, but that experience remains available for those who want it. 

For those who do follow Kahn’s route, Piano’s building will be the first thing they see once they turn the corner and glimpse the garden, but it’s unlikely they will be distracted from their intended destination: A weak doppelganger, Piano’s pavilion just doesn’t hold that much allure. 

Inga Saffron is the architecture critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Published in Texas Architect March/April 2014.