The Kimbell Art Museum unveils Piano-designed pavilion
Adding to an 'I.Kahn’
The Kimbell Art Museum unveils Piano-designed pavilion
Adding to an architectural masterpiece is a daunting task that it not for the faint of heart. Such work is fraught with difficulties and the environment is ripe for failure. The architect who is second on the scene operates from a precarious perch. Working in the shadow of a master he or she must find that happy middle ground between asserting one’s own voice and restating another’s. If the tenor of the new work is not pitch-perfect, the architect stands to be vilified. And if the new work strikes the right chord the architect will likely be called a genius. Regardless, these commissions come with high stakes — reputations are tested and designs are picked apart down to bare bone. So when the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas recently unveiled a new museum building, designed by Renzo Piano, naturally the art world took notice and observers began weighing in on the Italian architect’s proposal, which extends the Louis I. Kahn masterpiece by mirroring it in a wholly new structure facing it from across a reflecting pool.
For years, the Kimbell has operated under less than ideal circumstances. The museum’s programs have grown far beyond those envisioned when Kahn’s building opened in 1972. But the difficulty of adding to its icon thwarted its attempts to expand. In the 1980s, the Kimbell hired Romaldo Giurgola to expand Kahn’s building. But when Giurgola proposed replicating Kahn’s form-defining vaults, creating massive public outcry, the project was abandoned. In Renzo Piano the museum has architect with a sensitive touch and one who holds great buildings in high regard. His track record for designing great museums and for expanding landmark buildings is unparalleled among his peers. Piano’s addition to Meier’s High Museum in Atlanta received high marks, including from Meier. And, his addition to The Morgan Library, where he ingeniously added ’a piazza’ inside the building, imparting a new organization that allows the building to be seen afresh, has been critically appraised. Having worked with Kahn early in his career should help Piano, who considers the Kimbell to be “one of the best buildings in the world” and “the very best building by Kahn”.
While the praise for Piano’s work is generally quite high, there are those who have said, “Piano fatigue is setting in” in America where he has scooped up many of the country’s most prized commissions. If there is one knock against Piano, and it is a recurring one, it is that he is at times too referential for his own good. The New York Times architecture critic, Nicolai Ouroussoff, said of Piano’s recent proposal for the Isabelle Stewart Gardener Museum, that “if the design has a flaw it’s not that it tramples all over Gardner’s memory but that it holds it in too high a regard”.
Piano’s new building, which will break ground thissummer with completion in 2013, is actually two separate yet connected structures. The building doubles the museum’s gallery space, adds expanded educational and library space, and a new 290-seat auditorium. The project also provides underground parking for 137 cars. The siting of the building and the parking corrects the tendency of most visitors to enter the Kahn building from the rear. The building echoes Kahn’ building in its materials, scale and proportions as well as in its general plan and yet asserts its own more open transparent character. Both pavilions will be built of concrete, tripled-glazed, low-iron glass and wood, and will be naturally lit from an elaborately engineered roof incorporating wood beams, aluminum louvers and stretched fabric scrim and photovoltaic cells.
Piano clearly has the right stuff for this job. But it remains to be seen if he can actually deliver the goods. Ouroussoff, who was among the first to weigh in on the design, said “the biggest criticism is likely to be whether Piano is being too worshipful of Kahn’s genius”. But others, including Kahn experts David G. De Long and Robert McCarter, have expressed more pressing concerns about Piano’s pavilion, particularly the way it engages Kahn’s masterpiece.
De Long, who is professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of “Louis I. Kahn: In The Realm of Architecture” (1991) a definitive volume on the architect’s work, said of Piano’s design, “It’s not fair to judge from the primitive visuals. Piano’s proposed addition seems respectful and keeps a certain distance, but I still wish it did not engage so directly with Kahn’s footprint — seemingly a reflection of its entrance façade and a bit too close to be read as a totally separate entity. Of positive note is the proposed route from the new underground garage, which will orient the visitors to the main façade in a way never before possible. A similar sense of extended symmetry comprised the addition to the Salk Center. It seems better here, but still not perfect. Like balancing the Parthenon with a parallel elevation.”
*Echoing some of the points made by De Long but with less optimism for Piano's design is Robert McCarter, the Ruth and Norman Moore Professor of Architecture at Washington University in Saint Louis and author of Louis I. Kahn, (2005). "Louis Kahn's Kimbell Art Museum is without question the greatest museum of the 20th century, and the proposed addition to it should be subjected to the most intense scrutiny, as was done in the 1980s when the addition, then proposed, was rejected as potentially
damaging to the experience of the Kimbell. I am a great admirer of Renzo Piano, but in the case of the Kimbell
addition, I believe he is making a mistake”, McCarter said.
He continued, “The relationship of the Kimbell to the landscape to the west, an essential aspect of our experience of the museum, will not survive having a building, however minimally detailed, placed directly opposite the Kimbell's entry portico. I believe we should learn from irreparable mistakes such as the addition to Kahn's Salk Institute, set directly across from the entry to the central court, forever destroying the relationship between the court and the landscape of the approach.”
McCarter added, “I taught a studio project at Washington University three years ago for an addition to the Kimbell, using the site to the northeast, across from Ando's
Modern, and it was clear that, if the addition is not to touch the Kimbell,
that site works well. If we are to learn from mistakes, we should also learn from successes, such as Steven Holl's superb addition to the Nelson Atkins Museum of Kansas City, which despite the competition calling for a
building set directly in front of the existing building, was added to the side
of the original building – as would be the case with the southwest site for the Kimbell addition – joining the landscape garden by Dan Kiley to the original building”.
With construction soon to begin it is unlikely any amount of criticism will deal the project a fatal blow. But the Kimbell should at least provide sufficient enough time for others to weigh in. The objective now should be to protect the integrity of Kahn’s architecture as the museum grows in ways Kahn himself did not foresee.
*Editor's Note: Professor McCarter requested to amend his quote to correct a geographic error. The corrected quote appears above.