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Kimbell Art Museum

It Never Feels Good To Say, "I Told You So"

This is the lawn that once existed in front of the Kimbell Art Museum

This is the lawn that once existed in front of the Kimbell Art Museum

I was in Fort Worth over the weekend to attend a lecture from my friend and mentor Max Levy. He was speaking at the Kimbell Art Museum and the visit also afforded me the opportunity to visit the museum as well as its neighboring extension, the so-called "Piano Pavilion" that was completed in 2013. As far as art museums go the addition is respectable enough. It clearly cost a fortune but I couldn't help but feel saddened by its existence. This sentiment was not unexpected. 

Back in 2011 I wrote an essay for called "Requiem For A Lawn". in which I talked about the addition before it was built and what I feared would be lost once it was finished. Alas, my predictions proved prescient.

Below is the text of that essay that appeared in the July/August issue of Texas Architect:

I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have grown up a short drive from the Kimbell Art Museum. While it might be a bit of a stretch to say that Louis Kahn’s vaulted masterpiece was the reason I decided to become an architect, it certainly did provide a compelling example of what great architecture could be.

As I learned more about the Kimbell in architecture school, I began parking not in the sunken eastern lot but on the street between Kahn’s building and the Amon Carter Museum. This western approach was the one originally envisioned as the main entry and I felt like it was a little secret between Kahn, the building, and me. A key part of this sequence was crossing the broad, tree-lined meadow that served as the Kimbell’s front lawn for almost 40 years.

I have come to appreciate this lawn as an important foil to the massive and dignified Kimbell Art Museum. While the tree lined lawn was originally planted as a mall centered on the landmark tower of the neighboring Will Rogers Memorial Center, the integration of the greenspace into the overall design of the Kimbell effectively wove the new building harmoniously into its existing urban context.

Perhaps more important, Kahn’s plan preserved an open field of activity for the city of Fort Worth. In my years of crossing it as I made my way to the museum I have seen kids flying kites and dogs catching Frisbees. I have seen families engaged in picnics and fly-fishermen practicing their cast. I have seen the Kimbell’s front lawn play host to several games of touch football and at least one impromptu cricket match.

*          *          *

In 2007, the Renzo Piano Building Workshop was announced as the architect for a significant addition to the Kimbell. This would be the second attempt to expand the museum: a 1989 proposal by Romaldo Giurgola was ultimately abandoned after fierce public outcry that its approach would severely alter the integrity of Kahn’s original structure. While certainly flawed, Giurgola’s scheme notably left the western lawn untouched.

As vociferous as the opposition was 31 years ago, it is surprising how little reaction Piano’s more recent effort has generated. Perhaps this is due to the fact that unlike the 1989 proposal, the Kimbell itself will remain intact. This new scheme seeks to complement the original structure from a distance rather than mimic it at close range. Kahn’s near-perfect interplay of light and space, structure and material, served and servant will remain the same. Of course, the amount of gallery space will be doubled and the expanded museum will in all likelihood reap the benefits of increased attendance. That is all fitting and proper, but something irreplaceable will vanish in the bargain since Piano’s design places the new building in the middle of the Kimbell’s western lawn.

I am not suggesting that plans for the addition be scrapped (as construction has already begun it is a bit late to make that argument) but I believe it should be recognized that some of the magic that is the Kimbell will be lost.

At the risk of waxing nostalgic, I for one will miss what once was. I will miss the intimate and easily understood scale of the original Kimbell. I will miss the western lawn and the display of civic life that it nurtured. Piano’s rational is that the new building and its associated underground parking will re-orient entry into Kahn’s building, allowing most visitors to enter from the west as originally planned. Only now, rather than crossing a broad and open lawn, visitors will be merely traverse a court between two buildings. While visitors will be entering from the direction Kahn intended, the experience will be a totally different one.

At the end of last year when groundbreaking seemed imminent, I made a special trip to the Kimbell to see it one final time in its original state. It was a beautiful autumn morning and the lawn’s perimeter trees sent long shadows across the expanse of green. As it was early on a Saturday, I had the space to myself and the solitude only heightened the experience. That morning felt almost like a final parting at the end of a long relationship. Though neither of us would ever be the same afterward, we could still enjoy one another’s company one last time.

In Defense of the Small Museum

the "new" Kimbell as seen from the "old" Kimbell

the "new" Kimbell as seen from the "old" Kimbell

As I mentioned in a post a few weeks ago, I grew up about fifteen minutes from the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. Growing up in the shadow of that building certainly played a part in my decision to become an architect. It's certainly one of Kahn's best works and arguably one of the best pieces of architecture in the state. I am not alone in this belief.

That said, one of the things that was rarely talked about when praise is heaped onto the Kimbell is how perfectly scaled the museum was. Now when I talk about scale I'm not talking about the scale of the architecture - I'm talking about the museum itself. With a single large, a single medium and single small gallery, whatever was on display could be comfortably taken in over the course of a casual morning or an afternoon. This is in stark contrast to a place like the Dallas Museum of Art or MoMA whose vast exhibition spaces are so extensive that it is all but impossible to "see everything". I always leave that type of museum frustrated that I didn't see everything and tired for having tried. That was never the case at the Kimbell. I always left reinvigorated and happy. I always left inspired by the art I had seen.

Of course, I'm using the past tense when referring to the Kimbell because they expanded the museum so that now it is much larger than it was. In 2013 a separate structure designed by the Renzo Piano Building Workshop was opened on what had been an open lawn facing the original building. The new building was perfectly respectable (as most Piano buildings are) and although the loss of the lawn was unfortunate, it wasn't so noticeable from within the original building itself (see the image above).

What was noticeable was that the size of the museum had more than doubled. Now there are multiple galleries spread across two buildings. It's still nothing like The Met in terms of its vast scale but it is also no longer intimate like the Kimbell used to be.

There are economic realities that force museums like the Kimbell to expand. They are similar to the forces that cause Walmarts to get bigger, SUVS to grow larger and portions at restaurants to become obscene. Smaller museums are apparently much more difficult operate - one of my favorite small museums in Chicago, the Terra Museum, was forced to close in 2004.

And so even though I can understand the logic of the ever-expanding a museum, I can still be nostalgic for the small museum.

The Kimbell Is Forever

image courtesy Universal Artists

image courtesy Universal Artists

In December of 1971 United Artists released the seventh James Bond film, Diamonds Are Forever. It cost $7.2 million to produce. A few months later, Louis Kahn's Kimbell Art Museum opened in Fort Worth Texas. It cost $6.5 million to build.

I'm not quite sure what to think of that or which of those two endeavors had the greatest cultural impact. I do know which one had the greater impact on me. I did, after all, decide to become an architect as opposed to a British spy.

The kids go to the Kimbell

We were up in The Dallas/Fort Worth area last weekend and because my girls are early risers (and my wife is not) I drove them over to the Kimbell Art Museum. Of course it wasn't open at 6:00am but the building is still inspiring just to be around. I grew up only a few minutes from the museum and I feel it played a big part in inspiring me to become an architect.

That Saturday morning it inspired my girls to run around and explore with great enthusiasm: 

Darcy does downward dog.

The girls frolic symmetrically.

Darcy walks past the Youpon Entry Court whilst wearing Daddy's hat.

Sammy and Darcy reflect on how much fun it would be to jump into the reflecting pool.

Darcy moves towards the Moore.