No Harm to the Kimbell

Robert LaPrelle
The north end of the new Renzo Piano Pavilion at the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas. The entry façade is on the right. Additional views of the building can be seen on the NYRblog.

The good news is that the Renzo Piano Pavilion, its eponymous architect’s long-awaited addition to Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum of 1966–1972 in Fort Worth, is far from the disaster feared by many admirers of the most revered twentieth-century gallery. There is no bad news, only mild regret that the new $135 million building is not very distinguished, especially in light of what I believe to be Piano’s masterpiece, only thirty-two miles away in Dallas, his Nasher Sculpture Center of 1999–2003. More than ever before, the Nasher struck me during a recent visit as its designer’s equivalent of Kahn’s Kimbell, a warm and embracing fusion of art and architecture that seems increasingly remarkable each time I see it.

Conversely, my primary response to Piano’s Kimbell expansion is relief that it does not harm the adjacent landmark, as would have happened had Romaldo Giurgola’s controversial 1989 expansion plan for the original Kahn building been implemented. Giurgola proposed extending Kahn’s series of parallel modular units with replicas of his concrete-framed, travertine-clad oblongs and barrel-vaulted lead roofs bisected by linear skylights. Although Kahn’s first scheme included more units than the version ultimately executed, Giugola’s ill-advised expansion, which provoked an outcry from preservationists, ended any further notion that the building could be altered by direct enlargement.

To be sure, matters would be much improved had the freestanding Renzo Piano Pavilion been placed elsewhere on the museum’s ample property—specifically a vacant lot just across Van Cliburn Way to the east of the Kahn galleries, used as an auxiliary parking lot for Tadao Ando’s Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth (1997–2002). Piano devised a promising initial plan for that unobtrusive location, but the Modern Art Museum wanted to keep the parking lot (even though it is owned by the Kimbell) and a different scheme was prepared for the site to the west of the Kahn building, where the 101,000-square-foot addition now stands.

Its design reiterates the format Piano has used in several other museum buildings: a low-rise rectangle with a flat overhanging roof supported by a modern version of the Classical colonnade, a single continuous row of columns set out from the structure’s outer walls and supporting the extended roof above the configuration, first seen in his elegant but emotionally restrained Menil Collection of 1982–1986 in Houston. At the new Fort Worth pavilion, there is an odd disjunction between the three-hundred-foot-long entry façade—from which you see the Kahn building across a broad grassy lawn—and the one-hundred-foot-long side elevations, which overlook streets to the north and south.

The Piano addition is connected to the Kahn building by an underground parking garage and by a walkway across the lawn between…

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