At 50, Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth remains a paragon of architectural achievement

Insight, Inspiration, and Aspiration

At 50, Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth remains a paragon of architectural achievement

Kimbell Art Museum, Kahn Building exterior, south portico, evening. (Iwan Baan/Courtesy Kimbell Art Museum)

The Kimbell Art Museum opened to the public 50 years ago on October 4,1972. It has now existed for almost eight times longer than it it took its architect, Louis I. Kahn, to conceive and construct the building, from 1966 to 1972, though one might easily argue that its ideas were the product of Kahn’s seven decades of life prior to that point. In either instance, the work contains a body of ideas elegant enough to change the world of architecture. As an object lesson and artifact, the museum is a remarkable offering to what can be achieved in architecture.

The Kimbell’s location in Fort Worth provided a context rich with potential. The four decades from the 1936 Texas Centennial (and the creation of the Kimbell Art Foundation that same year) to the 1976 U.S. bicentennial were the time frame within which Kahn’s project was born. Many works by significant architects appeared in both Fort Worth and Dallas during these 40 years.

model photograph of a museum building with a barrel-vaulted roof
Kimbell Art Museum site model, second version, November 1967. (Robert Wharton/© 2013 Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth)
aerial archival photo depicting construction of kimbell art museum
Aerial view of construction from the southeast, January 18, 1971. (Robert Wharton/© 2013 Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth)

Midway, the 1956 Gruen Plan for Fort Worth set a tone of civic aspiration with its focus on the removal and restricted movement of automobiles in the central business district (CBD). Its studies were informed by academic proposals at Yale and other schools—and no doubt included Kahn’s plans for a pedestrian Philadelphia downtown in the same time period. While the much-published Gruen Plan was not implemented in Fort Worth, the broad planning impetus led to the hiring of Lawrence Halprin in the late 1960s to study the relationship of the city and the Trinity River, along which it was founded in 1849. Sundance Square, the Water Gardens, Heritage Park Plaza, and activities such as Fort Worth nonprofit Streams & Valleys’s annual Mayfest were born of the ideas in Halprin’s 1971 CBD sector report.

One of the qualities of elegance—elegance in problem-solving—is the spinning-off of aspects that were not part of the original problem statement or definition. In mathematics, this precept of a clarity that is beautiful and simple has been well accepted over the years. The Kimbell Art Museum became such a solution in architecture.

Perfection with a capital P, as with the idea of Beauty prior to Dave Hickey’s reintroduction to discourse in the 1980s, had found limited regard within art world values through no fault of its own. As with history, current philosophy makes clear that there is no single “History,” but rather many “histories” to be reconciled as subjective viewpoints. Nonetheless, the Kimbell might stand as close to perfection as possible with actual materials in the real world.

architect louis kahn pictured at his kimbell art museum in fort worth, texas
Louis I. Kahn standing against the north wall of the Kimbell Art Museum auditorium before turning it over to its owner, the Kimbell Art Foundation, August 3, 1972. (Robert Wharton/© 2013 Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth)

The formal and conceptual eloquence given place—brought into existence, into light—is the result of a mind and sensibility of extreme refinement echoed in the concerted and careful work of many following the initial benevolence of the will of patron Kay Kimbell and the generosity of his widow, Velma. Kahn’s alignment with a team of prodigious talent and capacities, in the context of late-’60s and early-’70s Fort Worth, created a situation in which a kind of local perfection could be, and arguably was, achieved.

Whether one is concerned with the vault/reflector as a natural light “instrument” or the formwork patterns as a grammar of assembly and legibility of the construction sequence, the museum holds in place substantial beauties. The quality of light captured by the remarkable shell/vault/beam/skylight/reflector conjunction is singular and ephemeral. It has allowed a mercurial daylight within a largely opaque cluster of rooms functioning as ground-level top-lit galleries that are “supported” from a lower-level plinth. The roof structure, Fred Angerer’s “barrel shell” typology adopted and detailed by Kahn and engineer August E. Komendant to act as a beam, rhymes with the adjacent 1937 allées created by Hare & Hare for the 1936 Will Rogers Center across the street. The open porticoes as skeletal evidence and preface of the structure utilized speak to the deft understanding of the need for shade and water in a place such as a city describing itself as “where the West begins” in Texas.

children in school uniforms explore an art museum gallery
Kimbell Art Museum, Kahn Building south gallery, center. (Iwan Baan/Courtesy Kimbell Art Museum)
furnishings in a museum building's mezzanine level
Kimbell Art Museum, Kahn Building mezzanine. (Iwan Baan/Courtesy Kimbell Art Museum)

The sloping site, which descends to the Trinity River to the east—a terrain that resisted a major 1949 flood that reached the Art Deco Farrington Field stadium two blocks closer—suggested a two-story parti, with the service and support areas at the lower level providing for the ground-level galleries above. The resulting arrangement gained daylight in section in the simplest and most beneficial way. In addition, two 100-foot-long light wells (obscured from view “behind” the western porticoes) allow natural light to the lower level and create buffers against moisture penetration.

The material palette of cast-in-place concrete, travertine on CMU infill walls, mill-finish stainless steel, white oak millwork and flooring, and lead roofing (now lead-coated copper) was in part derived from the design of the Salk Institute, completed a year prior to Kahn’s commission for the Kimbell. He originally wanted to use slate as a wall material in La Jolla, as the idea was to allow scientists to write on the walls and inspire conversation and subliminal cross-fertilization, but it was too expensive. A team member suggested that the travertine used for ballast on Italian ships arriving in San Diego could be obtained inexpensively, and when cut samples were placed alongside the concrete tests, Kahn found “rapport.”

black and white photo of architect louis kahn pointing upward
Louis Kahn pointing to his “natural light fixture” in the west lobby of the Kimbell Art Museum during the opening reception, October 1972. (© Robert Shaw/Courtesy Kimbell Art Museum)
archival photo depicting gallery at the kimbell art museum in fort worth, texas
South galleries of the Kimbell Art Museum with original furnishings and wooden walls, 1970s. (© 2013 Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth)

At the Kimbell, only clear finishes are employed on any material, if finished at all. Millwork is both frame-and-panel and flush overlay at the same time. Kahn’s belief in leaving work exposed and uncovered prevails.

Kahn, working with architect Fred Langford, devised a logic of marine-grade plywood formwork and detailing that has changed the creation of “architectural concrete” since then. Kahn’s philosophy and quest for integrity in the construction process as the source of “ornament”—he would say that “ornament is the adoration of a joint”—resulted in a language of form tie holes that were then filled with lead plugs to resist rusting and chamfered quirk joints at the butted interface between plywood forms to assist with the issue of “honeycombing,” when cement leached out from between forms. Initiated at the Salk, these ideas were refined for the Kimbell.

The 2×12 wood form devised by general contractor Thos. S. Byrne for the pouring of the cycloidal shell/vault/beams was an inspired solution to the problem and allowed for reuse of those forms just like those of the plywood wall-panel forms. The remaining formwork now resides at the University of Texas at Arlington School of Architecture after being found on a farm in north central Texas in 1993.

a museum courtyard with statuary
Kimbell Art Museum, Kahn Building, Penelope courtyard. (Iwan Baan/Courtesy Kimbell Art Museum)
verdant portico and courtyard of a museum building with a barrel-vaulted roof
Kimbell Art Museum, Kahn Building exterior, north portico and Yaupon Tree Court, day. (Iwan Baan/Courtesy Kimbell Art Museum)

The construction documents for the project were hand drawn by the office of Preston M. Geren, with architectural sheets by Dewayne Manning and sitework sheets by Terry Garrett, and the only computer-related work was a calculation to confirm the hand-drawn curve by Richard Kelly for the winglike aluminum scrim reflectors, which proved remarkably close to optimal.

The quality of light captured and held within the silvery shells has a profound effect on the artwork displayed within the roughly 22,000 square feet of gallery space. Kahn’s museum has become a symbol of what such an intense endeavor of architectural creativity can produce.

Shortly before Picasso’s death, the artist said that art would “have to go through” him, as there was “no way around” him. The same could be said of Kahn’s Kimbell. The passage of a half century has done nothing to diminish the achievement.

W. Mark Gunderson is an architect in Fort Worth.