I was in Dallas over the Christmas vacation and visited Kimbell Art Museum. Louis Kahn’s building just celebrated its 40th anniversary and is in the process of constructing an extension designed by Renzo Piano. The new addition is under construction and we would not know how it will measure up to Louis Kahn’s master piece. I had been to Kimbell Art Museum more than a decade ago, while the first visit was awe-inspiring the second visit was reassuring that great works of art and architecture not only withstand the test of time but get better with age.
Somewhere I read that one day Kahn walked into his class at Yale and said, light – and after a well measured pause concluded is architecture. Now I am not sure if those were his words but Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum sums up that dictum more than any modern work of architecture. Architects are always talking about controlling light in their buildings but none achieved the sublime results Louis Kahn achieved in this little museum.
Kahn’s building is a beautifully crafted jewelry box for works of art. The building is small in scale providing an intimate environment to viewers and visitors. The building’s interiors never seem to intrude on your experience of art and its exterior never screams at you demanding attention. The building is masterfully integrated into an understated landscaping plan which enhances its presence at that site. The building is true to its modernist philosophy of clean lines and simple open plans. Though the building is longer than it is wide the gallery spaces never feel too long because Kahn created an entrance in the middle and provided small open court yards.
It is hard to find any fault with this building; its most redeeming quality is the play of light inside the building. Kahn just did not allow the light to come into his building, his genius was how and from where light enters the building and then how it is dispersed. The beautifully crafted concrete roof vaults seem to float above the walls because they are separated at the base from the wall by small length-wise openings. Furthermore, the roof vaults were split again at the apex letting in light which was reflected back onto the vault by a glass and metal reflector.
Kahn’s use of travertine marble for walls and floors was pure genius. The travertine walls are light in appearance because of marble’s porous nature. I believe after forty years the travertine walls and floors have grown a little more pale and reflect a suffused light with a warm pale hue. The play of diffused light through the use of soft surfaces of travertine marble and pale wood floors create an ephemeral and magical space.
I did visit Tado Ando’s Modern Art Museum of Fortworth across the street from the Kimbell. The Modern Art Museum built 10 years ago was supposed to be Tado Ando’s homage to Louis Kahn. The Modern’s building also built with concrete and glass is inward looking onto a small shallow pond and turns its back on Kahn’s museum. By placing the Modern’s parking lot right across Kahn’s building entrance, Tado Ando isn’t paying homage to Kahn or serving either building well.
Amit Khanna of (AKDA) has presented a pictorial comparison of both museums in Arch Daily and it is worth seeing the two buildings beautifully photographed in this article.