Kimbell’s $135 Million Expansion Has Light, Needs Soul

A shadow creeps across the barrel-shaped ceiling of an entrance porch at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

It’s a sublime, ephemeral phenomenon that evokes an ancient sun-dazzled world.

Designed by Louis Kahn in 1972, the Kimbell is considered the greatest American museum building of the 20th century. Understandably, the new $135-million addition by Renzo Piano, which at 101,000 square feet (9,383 square meters) just about doubles the Kimbell’s space, has been anticipated with trepidation.

Kahn died just two years after the opening, leaving a building that is regarded as uniquely congenial to a collection of only 350 exquisite objects.

Most works have been acquired after long consideration and at lavish cost. Choice Old Master paintings dominate.

Kahn echoed the porch’s barrel roof in long galleries in travertine marble framed in concrete. Slots in the ceiling and narrow clerestories just below the vaulted ceiling admit a silken wash of daylight and the occasional shaft of sun which never strikes the art.

The galleries are almost domestic in scale, and invite the close inspection of the parade of masterpieces that range from Caravaggio and Picasso to delicate pre-Columbian sculptures.

Kahn, a native of Philadelphia, was a wild-card choice, a cerebral yet charismatic professor, who had completed few significant buildings in 1965, when he was selected, at age 64.

Restrained Elegance

In Genoa-based Piano, 76, the Kimbell got what it signed on for: a predictable, restrained elegance. The Italian once worked for Kahn and has designed 13 major museum projects in the U.S. alone, known for their obsessively refined handling of light.

Piano did not add to the original building but designed a separate structure looking toward it across a tree-studded sweep of lawn. There’s no Oedipal face-off between Piano and paterfamilias Kahn because Piano defers with a wide glass-walled entrance flanked by two bunker-like concrete-walled wings that echo Kahn’s proportions.

While Kahn’s wing inside feels earthbound, almost subterranean, you enter a realm of shimmering light within the building that’s now called the Piano Pavilion. (Piano did not approve the naming. “I’m not dead,” I’m told he said.)

The huge lobby is roofed by bands of glass that run between massive paired wooden roof beams. High walls of glass form a series of shimmering scrims from the entry through a courtyard to a rear wing.

Endless Refractions

The lobby almost vibrates from the endless refractions as the sun arcs through the sky.

The two large galleries flanking the lobby bring to mind an aircraft hangar designed by Steve Jobs. The glass roof seems to float atop the massive exterior walls, which are concrete honed to a sheen (aided by the addition of titanium) so delicate it evokes fog.

Atop the roof glass, louvers covered with photovoltaic cells swivel with the sun angle to precisely guide daylight through an atomizing fabric scrim.

Piano tops the exterior walls with a line of clerestories (an idea lifted from the Kahn). Along with tall end windows, the side lights add dimension and warmth that dispels the chill I have felt in other Piano projects.

While Kahn’s blond travertine marble walls cosset art, Piano’s silvery concrete brings a new glow to warm-toned paintings and delicate sculptures from Latin America and Asia.

Severe Magnificence

The large galleries trade the intimacy of the Kahn for a severe magnificence and much more flexibility in arrangement -- especially of temporary exhibitions, which in the Kahn required removal of most of the collection.

Kahn was the first architect to break open the tyrannical gallery box by taming the art-damaging quality of daylight while using it to reveal subtleties of tone and texture. The changeability of daylight evokes the real world museums shut out.

Instead of diluting the Kahn’s intimacy, the Piano wing calls attention to Kahn’s sensuality.

Standing in front of the Piano, my eye was drawn to a long line of water that spills luxuriantly in front of Kahn’s inviting open porches.

Strolling across to the Kahn, I ascended a low stone plinth, as one would a classical temple. The travertine walls and the trunks of tightly planted rows of yaupon holly trees that veil the entrance invited me to touch.

Turing back to gaze back at the Piano, I appreciated the way every surface, bolt, and tie rod has been refined and proportioned with supreme -- if soulless -- confidence.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Scott Reyburn and Katya Kazakina on auctions, Elin McCoy on wine, Martin Gayford on art, Warwick Thompson on U.K. theater and Jeremy Gerard on U.S. theater.

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