The Kimbell Art Museum celebrates its 50th anniversary

Catching an architect to build or expand has been a branding strategy for art museums for years. The Guggenheim Museum opened its Frank Lloyd Wright building in 1959 and by the 1980s it seemed that all the great architects – Cesar Pelli, Michael Graves, Richard Meier, Arata Isozaki – were tapped to raise the physical profile of institutions across the country. One of the most admired art installations appeared in 1972: the masterpiece that Louis Khan created for the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. In 2013, the institution expanded its footprint with an addition by Pritzker Prize winner Renzo Piano. As the Kimbell celebrates its 50th anniversary this fall, it celebrates not only its beautifully curated collection, but also the structures that showcase it.

Educated in fine arts at the University of Pennsylvania, Kahn grew professionally with the International Style and was deeply affected by the ancient architecture he encountered in Italy, Greece and Egypt. He had already made his mark with projects such as the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, the Phillips Exeter Academy Library and the Yale University Art Gallery when the Kimbell Art Foundation – founded by businessman and collector Kay Kimbell – undertook to create a museum housing the work he and his wife had assembled.

Foundation President Richard Brown was determined that natural light would be a key aspect of the design. After reviewing various architects – including Marcel Breuer, Pier Luigi Nervi and Gordon Bunshaft – the foundation awarded the commission to Kahn. Not surprising. The role of natural light in architecture was central to Kahn’s thinking. As he said, “A plan of a building should be read as a harmony of spaces in light.” It sounds like a simple enough statement, but Kahn’s conviction ran deep. “All matter in nature, the mountains and the streams and the air and we, are made of Light,” he said, “and this crumpled mass called matter casts a shadow, and the shadow belongs to the light.”

From a distance, the Kahn-designed building—composed of 16 gently curving vaults (cycloids) arranged in three parallel units of six, four, and six—takes on an austere, almost industrial appearance. But up close, its human-scale and evocative forms of antiquity come together to generate a pleasant sense of occasion and welcome. Inside, natural light streams through narrow Plexiglas skylights along the vaults and bounces off wing-like aluminum reflectors below to bathe the galleries in soft illumination.

While widely – even rapturously – admired for the clarity and understated monumentality of its design, by the late 1980s the Kimbell was already looking to expand. When the museum revealed a plan to extend Kahn’s Cycloid Vaults, it didn’t go well. Philip Johnson, Frank Gehry and James Sterling were among the signatories of a pointed letter to the New York Times. “Why ruin Kahn’s lifetime masterpiece with such a thoughtless extension? they demanded. “We are convinced that it would be better to preserve the current museum and create an entirely new structure in an adjacent position.”

That’s exactly what the Kimbell ended up doing when, in 2013, it unveiled the Renzo Piano Pavilion. Scaled to respect Kahn’s building, the new structure is set a good distance away, with a loose alley of slippery elms sitting in between. Piano, who spent time in Kahn’s office early in his career and whose recent museum clients include the Whitney and the Art Institute of Chicago, echoed Kahn’s light admission strategy with a fabric roof system, glass, wooden beams and aluminum louvers. As in the original museum, concrete dominates, but Piano has also included a significant amount of glass at the center of its composition, allowing for a strong visual connection to Kahn’s work.

Speaking publicly days before his building’s debut, Piano – who had described his predecessor’s work as “small but strong…brave and modest”, said: “When you work close to a master like Kahn, you have to be careful because you can’t be arrogant, stupid.

Although the museum’s collection, which has grown since the days of the Kimbells, ranges from early art to the mid-20th century, it only includes around 350 carefully chosen works. Quality over quantity has always been the mantra here, as evidenced by farms such as Michelangelo’s The Torment of Saint Anthony, by Rembrandt Bust of a young Jew and Cezanne Maison Maria with a view of Château Noir. Current museum exhibits include The Life of the Gods: Divinity in Maya Art and Murillo: From Heaven to Earth. And to mark this anniversary year, the museum will present a special exhibition of archival documents relating the history of the museum and the design of the Kahn and Piano buildings, as well as a film festival linked to the work of the architects.

Compared to Zaha Hadid’s shard-like design for the Eli and Edythe Board Art Museum at Michigan State University, or the wet paper bag-like facade of the company’s San Francisco Museum of Modern Art addition. Norwegian Snøhetta, the Kimbell campus can looks its age. But when it comes to architecture, that’s not always a bad thing. In fact, it’s one of the reasons we love the buildings we build.

Mildred D. Field