After studying architecture and architectural history for the past seven years, I’ve sat through my fair share of lectures on great buildings. There are the heavy hitters that just keep hitting, among them the Parthenon, Pantheon, Pyramids, Notre Dame, St Peter’s, Eiffel Tower, Crystal Palace, Bauhaus School, Villa Savoye, and then the Kimbell Art Museum.
So when I go visit some great friends in Dallas, what is at the top of my to-do list? Of course, the Kimbell in Fort Worth.
I know you are sitting there wondering what is so special about this building. Why has it been decreed “the greatest American building of the second half of the 20th century”? And not by me, but Robert Campbell, the architectural critic for the Boston Globe, so surely he knows his stuff (at least in this case, he most likely does).
The light. God, the light.
Not unlike the Salt Lake City Public Library or the Beinecke, light is critical in museums. You want enough that you can see the detail on the piece of art before you, and not enough that the art is damaged. Direct sunlight damages art. So most museums embrace either artificial or indirect.
But here’s the thing, in most museums you view art in a way it was never seen by its creator, with artificial light. The Kimbell takes the alternate method. Indirect light is used at its finest here.
The Kimbell family, who we owe for this architectural wonder, first started collecting art in 1931. Kay Kimball, an extremely wealthy Fort Worth businessman, was goaded by his wife, Velma Fuller, to invest in art (fully supporting the fact that men should listen to their wives 😉 ). In 1936 they created the Kimbell Art Foundation, and by 1964, at his death, they had the best collection of Old Masters in the South West. So what’s next? Displaying it.
In 1966, the director of the Foundation, Richard Brown, started the search for the building’s architect. He considered countless top architects of the time. Even Gordon Bunshaft, who designed the Beinecke, graced the list. But in 1966, Louis Kahn was hired. Construction began in 1969 and finished in 1972. Within a very short time, the building was declared an architectural marvel (usually that takes generations).
Brown wanted a museum that would be as much a work of art as the art inside it. But, the key is the scale. The space was meant to be modest, so that it didn’t overwhelm the viewer or the art. And really, this is one of the reasons that the museum is so successful today. Also, he made special note of the need for natural light to be vital in the design. So, in that way Kahn was perfect, because Kahn loved natural light.
Unfortunately, Kahn came with a habit for time and cost overruns, so Brown was forced to keep him in tight check. But you got to admire an architect that can pull off the line that the “building gives you answers as it grows and becomes itself.” Which is something that is obviously true (especially before the advent of 3d modeling), but no client wants to hear as it pretty much equates to many dollar signs.
The museum itself is situated on a 9.5 acre site in Fort Worth’s cultural district, right near several other museums. The structure uses 16 parallel vaults of the same module: 100 ft long x 20 ft high x 20 ft wide. The side wings have six vaults (and one for a front porch), while the middle has four. The vaults are broken to make room for interior courtyards that further enhance the light and functionality of the interior. The upper floors host the art galleries, while the lower floor is the home of the restoration and museum services.
But, the key is the vault itself. Originally Kahn wanted to use sloped concrete, making the modules 30’ high. Surely, after our talk on scale that seems a bit much (or if not surely to you, at least put that in your mental backpack now). Instead, in the design he embraced cycloid curves which reduced the ceiling to 20’ tall and allowed light to wash down their interior face.
These arched modules are reminiscent of the Roman vaults that Kahn had deep admiration for, but structurally they work very differently. A vault is a continuous arch. It needs constant support along its long sides. Instead, these hybrids act as a beam. Essentially the extremely thin 5” thick, post-tensioned concrete shell becomes a 100’ long beam that spans from the edges. This allows it to be supported by only four columns at the corners, instead of support along the entire long sides. Luckily 100 feet is the maximum distance that the concrete could go before needing an expansion joint, but I’m confident that was no accident.
As you approach the building, Kahn uses his own type of “sculpture” to show exactly how the structure works.
What does this mean for the average museum-goer? It means that the spaces can flow because the walls can be removed. It allows Kahn to puncture the volume with those small courtyards as well. It also allows for cuts in the vault.
Since it is not necessary for it to be supported continuously on the long sides, Kahn puts a skylight in there. Since full support on the short ends isn’t necessary either, might as well add a skylight there too. In fact, it’s not even necessary for the center of the arch to be fully solid. And this is the most key skylight of them all.
This central skylight is the key player in making the indirect light. By utilizing a very specific and computer-engineered screen, the gallery is illuminated only by it. The computer enabled them to find the exact shape of the curve needed to reflect the light on the ceiling. When light is reflected, it is no longer direct. So the idea here is for the light to bounce off the screen and back up on the ceiling, and then wash down towards the art. Supposedly it took over a hundred tries to get it precisely right, so this gives me hope for my current project’s constant façade testing. By putting up lead sheathing on the interior side of the vault, we are all harkened back to the doge’s palace and st Marks basilica in Venice. The shimmery gleam stupefies you.
The only parts that are solid in this quasi-vault is where the structure needs it. Consequently, the skylight shield is also only where it’s needed. In the lobby, cafeteria and library the reflector is perforated so you can see up into it.
The building itself is modern in its lack of ornament and minimalist palette of concrete, travertine and white oak. But, it also pays homage to buildings of the past, which isn’t as modern, but instead just very Kahn.
Louis Kahn was an extraordinary man. Originally from Russia, his family immigrated in 1906 to America to avoid the Russo-Japanese war. At first, too poor to afford pencils, they made charcoal sticks from burnt twigs for Louis to earn money from drawing. From there, Kahn eventually trained as an architect at the University of Pennsylvania, in the Beaux-Arts Tradition with its emphasis on drawing. By 1928, he was able to make a European tour. He became interested in castles and the Medieval city of Carcassonne in France.
It wasn’t until his fifties that he finally found his iconic style. A style that seems timeless because of the classical elements he utilizes. He used monumental architecture in a time when monumentalism was dismissed as sentimental. Modernists didn’t want to be reminded of the past. But Khan allowed for the past’s inspiration. But still he was best at affecting the inhabitant. His buildings respond to a human scale, and speak a poetry of light. They fully divide served (main spaces) and servant spaces (stairways, corridors, and support spaces). To this day we know him by work that does just that, and also for asking a Brick what it wanted to be. (An arch, if you haven’t heard the answer).
So if you ever find yourself in Dallas or Fort Worth. Check out the Kimball. It’s free. Which in itself is a good enough reason to go and soak up some light and great art (we are talking Caravaggio, Greco, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Monet, Matisse, Picasso and Mondrian, as well as countless others here). It’s a beauty.
And you just have to respect a museum that is so whole and complete, that it was necessary to design a completely separate structure in order to make an addition. (Another post on the 2007 Renzo Piano addition may follow)
You too can enter through a courtyard of holly trees, listening as your footsteps echo around you because of all the hard materials; you can pass through the front doors into a hushed museum that seems even more startling than most. And you might find, that instead of just looking at the art, you spend a few moments looking at the building that houses it. You can spend an hour watching the silvery ceiling change and morph as the day changes. You can wander through vaults that seem almost too heavy to let you pass through them the way that you obviously can. And you might find yourself not asking what a brick wants to be, but instead asking why can’t more museums feel like this?
Thoughtful, and restful, and at peace.
“The sun never knew how great it was until it hit the side of a building.” – Louis Kahn