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Texas Architect

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.

8 Minutes, 32 Seconds Of Fame

image courtesy Aaron Seward

image courtesy Aaron Seward

A few months ago I drove up to the Comal County Courthouse in New Braunfels to talk on camera about the importance of preserving the historic county courthouses of Texas. Through the magic of editing and CGI, the good folks at the Texas Society of Architects and Lost Pines Studios were able to make me look slightly less alien and sound slightly more articulate.

At any rate, the video is now available online and can be seen on the brand-spanking-new Texas Architect website.


There is no such thing as bad publicity

This image may or may not have been altered

It's been three months since The Courthouses of Central Texas was released. Publishing a book is not like releasing a movie where you instantly know weather or not the endeavor has been a success. The process of selling books is much, much slower. My editor once told me that if the original run of 1,200 copies are sold out within three years, they will consider it a success. 

So that means I have a lot of selling to do. It also means I have to pace myself.

In addition to the various book signings and lectures I have planned, I also rely on reviews to help get the word out. A nice one was published a few days ago and Texas Architect ran one in their most recent issue. The Architect's Newspaper ran one last month which wasn't really a review of my book so much as it was an airing of the critic's own insecurities.

The next logical step of course is to seek out celebrity endorsements.


4 (Barely) Under 40

image courtesy Nicole Mlakar/Texas Society of Architects

So last year I was asked to speak at the Texas Society of Architects Annual Convention along with three other colleagues who were all at similar stages in their careers.  Even though it wasn't really an award, it was an honor and a great opportunity to get to know other professionals who are doing some really amazing work in Texas.  

Sarah Gamble of GO Collaborative in Austin is doing some really interesting work to engage the general public in community projects while at the same time teaching at UT Austin.  Karen Lantz of Full Circle|Enter Architecture has done some incredible design/build work in Houston including her own house that was featured in a New York Times.  Elizabeth Price of Upchurch Architects in Brenham has been highly involved in the AIA while at the same time being highly articulate about the challenges and opportunities of practicing in a small town.

Even though all four of us are in theory at similar places in our respective careers, our respective careers are incredibly diverse.  I think that's one of the exciting things about the architecture profession - the spectrum is wide.  Even though both my wife and I are architects, what we do radically different things on a daily basis and so have radically different things to complain about at the end of the day.

At any rate, an article describing the four of us appeared in the November/December issue of Texas Architect and the text can now be found online.  

What Starts Here...

The old UT Tower as send from the new Norman Hackerman Building

Earlier this year I wrote an essay for Texas Architect about some of the more recent buildings constructed on the campus of the University of Texas.  It’s been a while since I graduated from there – longer than I’d like to admit – but what I became aware of as I spent more time in Austin researching the article is that although a large amount of building has occurred, the campus that exists today is better than the one I knew back in the late 90s.  It’s a denser campus now and the sensibility with which it has grown has resulted in a better student experience.  This is in contrast to the author who has also grown denser since the late 90s although this has resulted in no discernable benefits.


Lessons that students learn in college go far beyond those in the classroom.  They learn about what it means to be an adult and what to expect from the world around them.  Now that most students come to UT from childhoods spent in the suburbs, the campus provides critical instruction on what a good, urban environment should be.