Does Renzo Piano’s New Kimbell Expansion Rise to the Level of Kahn’s Masterpiece?

Tomorrow, Renzo Piano’s Kimbell Art Museum extension, The Piano Pavilion, will have its grand opening in Fort Worth. Located steps (or “a Frisbee throw,” as the architect put it) from the Kimbell’s Louis Kahn-designed museum, the new building is a rare instance in which an architect has built directly next to a building that has profoundly influenced him. Early in his career, Piano worked in Kahn’s office, and each of Piano’s other museum buildings in Texas – Houston’s Menil and Dallas’ Nasher Sculpture Center – reflect the influence of Kahn. The challenge, then, is to create a structure that engages in a dialogue with his mentor’s masterwork, without replicating the gestures of his other Kahn nods.

The echoes of Kahn are strongest in the façade of the new building. Piano’s bone white building shares the low profile and extended wings of Kahn’s design, as well as the long slit windows just below the roofline. Piano’s building is airy and bright, with Kahn’s travertine replaced by concrete walls that were formed through a meticulous, single-pour process that lends them a subtle texture. A flat roofline, held up by thin white steel supports, plays in contrast with Kahn’s barrel vaults. The highlight of the pairing is the courtyard itself, which emphasizes the overlooked at-grade entrance to the Kahn building (most museum visitors enter at the rear of the building off a charmless driveway). Standing on the strip of grass, the two elegant, low slung structures cup the green space.

The façade of the new building looks like a sleek update of the older museum, but the interior breaks dramatically from the feel and functionality of Kahn’s museum. A large airy foyer greets visitors, and it is flanked by three gallery spaces, two of which are each inter-connected. From the entrance, interior glass walls allow clear sight lines through the entire building, and two glass passageways that cross a breezeway that cuts through the structure bring you in contact with the outside just as you are passing through the building’s center.

One of the pleasures of Kahn’s building is the way the layout of the three parallel barrel vaults creates a meandering, intimate, and intentional experience of the galleries, revealing and concealing rooms and partitioned spaces as you pass through. The new building is decidedly non-linear. The galleries are boxy and wide-open, with modular wall unites that allow for maximum flexibility. Instead of the curve of concrete overhead, Piano provides another of his machine roofs. Massive, though surprisingly light-feeling beams of Douglas Fir support glass, and moveable louvers, mounted light filters, and retractable screens that cover floor to ceiling windows allow for broad control of light levels. The new building’s most spectacular technical wizardry, however, is unseen. Tiny gaps between the floor boards allow for air to circulate up through the floor and recirculated through vents hidden at the tops of the concrete walls. The air flow design, brand new with the building, is both functional and aesthetic. It allows for a more even distribution of air through the space, but it also gets rid of those obstructive floor vents.

The strengths of the open gallery plan are most dramatically realized in the current installation of the Kimbell’s European painting collection. Walking into a large gallery, you can see dozens of works – indeed, almost the entire collection – from the entryway, which creates some inspired visual pairings. There’s Michelangelo’s early The Torment of Saint Anthony just a few steps away from Fra Angelico’s The Apostle Saint James the Greater Freeing the Magician Hermogenes, with their shared demotic cherubs floating about the frame. Turn a corner around Georges de la Tour’s The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs and you see Caravaggio’s The Cardsharps (c. 1595) on the back concrete wall. The art hung directly on the concrete also creates a spectacular effect. The new space has allowed the museum to hang the Kimbell’s four panels of Francois Boucher’s monumental mythologies together for the first time, and the backdrop of concrete makes the work look all the more sumptuous.

The building’s flexibility is shown off in the Asian gallery, in which the light levels are brought down to a quieted, temple dim, creating an entirely different experience of the space. In other galleries, this wide-open floor plan is less effective. The highlight of the Mesoamerican installation is the large limestone relief, Stela with a Ruler (692), hung on the concrete wall, but the open design (as well as a gift shop that is regretfully crammed into the space) diffuses the intimacy and immediacy of the experience.

While the galleries will allow the Kimbell more space and flexibility for exhibitions, particularly traveling shows, much of the building is dedicated to filling the museum’s more practical needs for office, educational, and programing space. There is a 300 seat theater at the back of the building, recessed into the ground and covered by a green roof. The two-story glass wall behind the stage looks out at a towering concrete shard. The foyer is large and grand enough to suggest its re-purposing as an event space, downstairs there is a library, and smaller rooms in the back can double as lecture or screening rooms. Even the underground parking garage, which looks like the hospital parking lot in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, is considered.

For all of the subtle intimacy of Kahn’s original building, it is quaintly resistant to the needs of today’s museum, for whom art is only one aspect of the mission. Piano has provided the Kimbell with a breezy, functional space for all of those other needs. It is elevating, but not fussy, pleasing, if not spectacular. In both function and aesthetics, Piano’s building is a complement.