How do you add to a masterpiece? This question must have troubled Renzo Piano when he was approached to expand Louis Kahn’s nearly perfect Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. Piano’s answer: don’t touch it.
Working with Houston-based Kendall/Heaton Associates, Renzo Piano Building Workshop (RPBW) designed a new building across the lawn that would complement Kahn’s, allowing the Kimbell to show nearly all of its 350-piece collection and expand its programming. The new Piano Pavilion, as it is called, is actually two buildings: one a refined and well-executed gallery building, a variation on many of Piano’s architectural themes; the other an auditorium and education building buried in the ground and topped by a sloping lawn.
Moving through Kahn’s sublime sequence of arches, yaupon hollies, pools, and steps down to the lawn, Piano’s building presents a rather blank face: a concrete wall broken in the center by floor to ceiling windows and doors, carefully aligned and proportioned to relate to the Kahn building. Inside, however, you are immediately in the luxurious, well-detailed world that Piano creates. A large lobby—also the same size as Kahn’s—will house a small café, coat check, and ticketing for special exhibitions, all of which can be cleared from the space for events. Two courtyards are visible beyond, flanking a glass bridge connecting to the auditorium building. Light is modulated through an elaborate ceiling system of scrims, translucent glass, and rooftop photovoltaic louvers, all set within massive laminated wood beams stained pale gray. Two large galleries flank the lobby on either side.
While the Kahn building uses warm materials including creamy travertine, warm wood floors and casework, cotton-covered walls, and rough-poured concrete, Piano’s palette is cooler and smoother, more mechanical than hand crafted. The galleries terminate in floor-to-ceiling glass walls offering views out to the landscape and neighboring buildings. Where Kahn had travertine, Piano opted for concrete walls, but not just any concrete. RPBW crafted the walls using special buttressed formwork, allowing for 30-foot spans between tie holes. They created a special mix to lighten the color and added titanium for a satiny finish. The concrete work is stunning. It also provides a strong backdrop for hanging art, including the many Old Master paintings for which the Kimbell is known. In the galleries, ventilation is handled through a white oak “breathing floor,” with air circulating through tiny gaps between the boards, so there are no visible grates. The overall effect will be familiar to visitors of Piano’s other museums, but here the attention to detail is taken to a wonderful extreme.
Passing through one of the two glass bridges into the auditorium building, visitors see a tougher, deeper side of Piano. The building includes one additional gallery for light-sensitive works, with only one carefully shaded window looking out to the fairgrounds beyond. The window also reveals that the auditorium building is set within a giant berm. A pair of facing staircases—also mirroring those in the Kahn building—leads down to the auditorium entrance. The staircases are lined with a canted concrete wall, which evokes a temple or maybe a tomb. Piano dramatizes the below-ground location in the 300-seat auditorium with a three-story-high concrete light well behind the stage, entirely visible though clear glass. The larger auditorium will accommodate an expanded program of lectures, films, and music performances.
Unlike the Kahn building, which is mostly opaque, the galleries of the Piano Pavilion will be visible from the park outside. Visitors can also climb on top of the auditorium building, which is covered in a thick mat of grass and will be a great picnic spot when the weather isn’t too hot.
While Piano’s building doesn’t match the beauty of Kahn’s temple of culture, it is one of RPBW’s best museum expansions. It deftly balances accessibility with rarity, a fitting expression for this treasure chest of a museum that is always free to the public.