Of the myriad impressions from a preview tour of Renzo Piano’s new addition to the Kimbell Art Museum, the most memorable was standing in the largely transparent, light-filled lobby and experiencing the expansive view to the east, across the almost table-flat lawn, through the alee of elms to the venerable Kahn building beyond. The experience was long awaited, and very satisfying. Like many Fort Worth residents, I’ve long considered the Kimbell Art Museum grounds the city’s front yard, and the Kahn building its premier international calling card in the global arts and architecture community. Like many others, I passed anxious months anticipating the removal of the tall construction fences to see the reality only hinted at with drawings and models.
The unveiling revealed a building that, from inside and out, resembles a glass jewel box that, rather than replacing the Kimbell’s cherished lawn, seems gently nestled into it, trading the lawn’s former expansiveness for a more crisply defined urban green. The shape and proportions of the green recall those of the two facing buildings, creating an outdoor room that binds the buildings together into a new, more urban composition. A strong indoor-outdoor connection has been created between the new pavilion and the site by placing the natural wood floors of the pavilion lobby, its entry terrace and the lawn at very nearly the same grade, creating the impression that the landscape extends into and through the lobby as one continuous, table-like plane.
Daniel Hammerman, the on-site architect for the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, agrees. “You hardly lose your connection to the site when you’re in the building. One of the driving design ideas was to use layers of glass to keep continuity with the site and views. You’re immersed in the arts, but you still have this wonderful connection to the surroundings and to the natural daylight.” For many in Fort Worth, the decades-long discussion about expansion revolved around the landscape, specifically the large park-like lawn and the views, foreground and sense of scale it provided for the original building designed by Louis Kahn. For others, the green space functioned as an informal park. Hammerman understands the connection. “A lot of people felt strongly on both sides of the issue. There were those who felt this was a sacred space and you should not lay a finger on it, and then there were others who said that Kahn’s original expansion plans always went in the westward direction with a separate building.
“In the ensuing years, the lawn has become a great public space,” Hammerman continued. “Many people I’ve met have a story of that lawn – that’s where they picnicked or watched July 4 fireworks, or took their first dates. The new building was conceived as a ‘pavilion in the park,’ with the goal of preserving as much green space as possible, even while adding 100,000 square feet of building capacity to the site. The entire site is about 9 acres, and about 4.5 acres of that is in public green space or paths now. It’s still a park, but more framed and defined.” According to Hammerman, the client and the design team felt that placing the new building on this site “produced the strongest possible relationship with the Kahn building, creating a more urban site and engaging the two buildings in a conversation. It results in a stronger relationship with the existing building than would have been possible on another site.”
Like the Kahn building, the orientation of the new Piano Pavilion and the formal green it shapes are consistent with the surrounding street grid, further solidifying its connection to its neighborhood and the city beyond. And that neighborhood is becoming increasingly urban. Hammerman sees the evolution of the Kimbell site as being in sync with surrounding changes. “There has been amazingly rapid development between the river and the museums. The area is denser, more residential, more walkable. This new building has a strong relationship to its context; it’s part of the increased urbanization of the area. The Kimbell site itself is still largely a park; it’s a calm and serene space for people to enjoy. But it’s also more framed and defined, more charged and dynamic; it’s not as open-ended. It’s part of a changing neighborhood.” Don Gatzke, the dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Texas at Arlington, also sees the project in the context of a dynamic, evolving city.
“If you ask a group of architects anywhere in the world to name the best American building of the 20th century, I think most will point to the Kimbell Art Museum,” Gatzke said. “It’s an extraordinarily muscular building; it can stand for itself. As things happen around it, it holds its own quite nicely. Cities change; conditions change. The Kahn building is now in a complex with a Tadao Ando building and a Phillip Johnson building. There’s a science museum, a theater and the Cowgirl Hall of Fame. The Piano Pavilion is another element in a complex and esoteric district, next to a horse arena, all in the city where the West begins.” Fort Worth’s offerings and culture have made an impression on Hammerman, who has recently lived in New York, Houston and Genoa, Italy. He’s enjoyed the process of building here. “I’ve been living here about two years during the construction,” he said. “It’s a great city. I live in a neighborhood of beautiful old bungalows; the downtown is amazing. The city has an appreciation for beautiful historic structures. The museum area is an amazing microcosm of some of the best architecture in the country, and it’s a hub for all kinds of cultural activities.
“You could say that the new building is a microcosm of the way Fort Worth looks to its past and to the future. It’s deeply rooted to the site and surrounding context, and yet there are lots of wonderful environmental performance features and tectonic and structural innovations with regards to the building itself. Renzo likes to point out that the Kahn building is heavy; it’s about gravitas. The new building is about levitas; it tries to achieve a sense of lightness. That’s the conversation that Renzo talks about. “There’s the issue of careful siting – being close enough to the Kahn building yet not too far away – but it’s also about the materials and the transparency of it. There’s a game of transparency and mass. The beams, for instance, span 100 feet, are 4 feet 4 inches tall and weigh 15 tons, but are carefully detailed and finished in such a way that they don’t feel as heavy as they are. The building is basically half glass and half concrete, but the concrete, because of its color and sheen and reflectivity, also has a lightness to it. With all its mass, the building still kind of flies. That’s an important theme with regards to its conversation with the Kahn building.” The Piano Pavilion brings a new jewel to Fort Worth’s cityscape and remarkable architectural legacy, while refocusing attention on the exquisite but often overlooked formal entrance of the Kahn building, reacquainting us with its shimmering fountains, broad, gentle steps, its formal grid of matched yaupons and gravel forecourt. It shapes a formal public green that beckons strollers, sunbathers, picnickers, dog walkers and yes, Frisbee throwers from across the city onto its broad expanse. Most important, it brings more of the Kimbell’s extraordinary art collection into public view and provides new venues for lectures, performance and public interaction with the arts. The “pavilion in the park’s” contribution to the city’s architecture and cultural offerings build on the prized city design qualities of diversity and choice. These qualities are hallmarks of great cities throughout the world and are increasingly defining characteristics of Fort Worth.
James Richards is an associate professor at the University of Texas at Arlington’s School of Architecture and co-founder of Townscape Inc., an urban design consultancy based in Fort Worth and Vancouver. He’s the author of Freehand Drawing and Discovery, published by John Wiley and Sons.