The Kimbell Art Museum celebrates its 50th anniversary this week, but if you told me it was 3,000 years old, I would believe it. Yes, it is a modern building – arguably the tallest modern building in the United States, and certainly in Texas – but in its elemental form and materiality, it is deliberately and irrefutably timeless.
The idea of archaic architecture appealed to Louis I. Kahn, a mystic with a penchant for gnomic aphorism and reflection on phenomenology. That is why he preferred the ancient temple of Paestum, in its enduring gravity, to the more refined Parthenon, which came later. “It presents a beginning in which is contained all the wonder that may follow in its wake,” he said.
To stand beneath one of the Kimbell’s barrel-vaulted porticoes, with the gentle sound of cascading water emanating from its reflecting pool, is to capture that sense of pregnant timelessness. It’s an ever-changing experience, dependent on the time of day, weather and season, but also, in a way, unchanging.
And that’s before even entering the museum, where one is confronted with another contradiction: the Kimbell is both gravely monumental and warmly human. The scale is practically domestic, and the details and furnishings – balustrades, seats, tables – attentive to the human body.
Everything seems simple, but of course it is not. The vaults appear to be simple hemispheres, but in fact they are a complex geometric shape known as a cycloid, and their construction required all the ingenuity of contractor Thomas Byrne. The diaphanous light of the museum filters through the slits of these vaults, to be reflected on their curved concrete forms by V-shaped reflectors of perforated aluminum. As Kahn himself noted, the idea was to give “a silvery glow to the room without directly touching objects, while still giving the comforting sensation of knowing the time of day.”
This unique ability to control natural light was what in 1966 prompted Richard Brown, then manager of the Kimbell, to choose Kahn for the commission over a distinguished group of competitors.
The clarity of Kahn’s plan is best appreciated from the air, from where the museum looks almost like a quilt. The building is made up of 16 long pavilions arranged in three parallel rows. The end rows have six pavilions, and the center only four, so that the whole forms a C-shape towards the rear, with a courtyard of squared yaupon trees in the void. The dimensions of the pavilion are standard: 100 feet long, 23 feet wide, 20 feet high at the top. The only interruptions are three square courtyards.
This arrangement has been deliberately fixed in plan and proportion, yet flexible enough to meet conservation needs. The works were to be exhibited on panels covered with fabric. The floors were a comfortable oak. The walls were white travertine. Kahn created rooms of ethereal grace, and the idea from the outset was that the collection would respond to these spaces.
If there was a flaw in the design, it was in the parking location at the rear of the building. Kahn envisioned a procession from this ending point, with visitors walking around the landscaped building and then forward, experiencing the building through movement and time. That was the plan. The reality was that the back became the front.
One of the goals of Renzo Piano’s addition to the museum in 2013 was to alleviate this problem by gluing a large parking lot under Kimbell’s Lawn, so that visitors would emerge from below with Kahn’s building in front of them. . The relative success of Piano’s intervention in this regard is up for debate (most people I know still park behind it), as is the overall merit of its design. The best thing that can be said is that Piano, who worked briefly for Kahn early in his career, treated his mentor’s masterpiece with extreme deference. This was not the case of an earlier expansion project, designed by the firm of Mitchell Giurgola, which caused such outrage that it had to be withdrawn.
The Kimbell was the last of his own completed projects that Kahn would have the chance to discover. He died in 1974 at the age of 73. In a tribute, New York Times critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote that he “loved buildings with a passion most men reserve for women”, which was true but somewhat ironic given that we now know he had children with three wives . Huxtable also extolled the seemingly ageless wonder of its architecture, how its buildings “suggest all that has come before and worlds to come”.
Surely that describes the Kimbell as a building that was old even when it was new, and remains so today.