Monday, May 31, 2010

A Modern Timelessness: Kahn, Piano and the Kimbell Art Museum

In keeping with the ongoing tradition of architectural rivalry with Dallas, the latest addition to Fort Worth's world-class cultural district was unveiled late last week. The Kimbell Art museum, which is housed in what is arguably Louis Kahn's greatest masterpiece built in 1972, has presented the final design of its long-awaited addition realized by Renzo Piano, an architect who has earned the reputation as the world's premier designer of museums. The addition more than doubles the exisiting exhibition spaces, provides additional lecture halls, and most importantly for its Texan patrons, abundant parking below ground. The news follows a rather eventful year for high-design in the metroplex, beginning last fall with opening of two brand new buildings in the Dallas Arts District, the unveiling of the Perot Museum of Science by Thom Mayne (currently under construction), and the recent opening of one of Ricardo Legoretta's stronger works to date, the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History.

Compared to Piano's numerous other museum commissions over the years, Texas has been of special value to his success and development. The state has now four of his projects, including two in Houston (the Menil Collection and Cy Twombly Gallery) and one in Dallas (Nasher Sculpture Center). It was in the Menil in 1986 that Piano established his most recognizable architectural prototype, the multi-layered roof that lightly hovers over a single-story art pavilion and bathes spaces underneath with diffuse natural light. The Twombly across the he street expanded further with the addition of motorized sun controls and fabric, and the Nasher exhibits an innovative eggcrate-like system of sunshades. Having closely followed his career since going to the Menil for the first time while in college, it seems that the Italian has blessed Texas with his best work. It's certainly a bold statement, but it has much to do with particular aspects to which I think Mr. Piano excels that are coincidentally rare in most of his projects elsewhere. Upon examining the drawings and images of his latest plans for the Kimbell, it seems he is reinforcing those aspects further, endowing these projects with a timeless beauty, yet preventing him from doing likewise for other projects of differing scales and function.
What are these aspects? His Texas museums exhibit an intimate scale, an exactness of proportion between all constituting parts and a simple repetition of spatial modules to accomodate various museum programs. They convey a gentle rhythm as one moves through, and they engage the street with an inviting transparency through the abundant use of glass and expansive porticos. Beyond these museums' pioneering experiments in the channeling of daylight, Piano's current effort at the Kimbell reveals something increasingly obvious though ironic for a famous popularizer of the "high-tech" style: an emergent classicism of tremendous rigor. Having first made a name for himself with the subversive Centre Pompidous in Paris, Piano is now beloved by museum owners for his increasingly conservative sensibility. This has brought about accusations of creative drift, in which Piano no longer surprises, and that he wins these sort of commissions precisely for his 'safe' designs.

In an era of starchitects, in which museums and performance halls by the likes of Gehry, Hadid and Libeskind are expected to function as a transformative engine of urban regeneration, Piano's buildings are quiet, self-effacing, and his more recent work, partly buried from view. In his scheme for the Kimbell addition, he deliberately makes it look smaller to Kahn's building 90 feet away, submerging major portions of it below grade and setting its roofline equal to the existing building. Even the supposedly spare Tadao Ando refused to defer to Kahn's masterpiece, his Modern Art museum across the street being significantly taller and more massive overall. In spite of Ando's masterful employment of concrete and repetitive structural bays that obviously reference Kahn's architecture, Ando departs by making orienting his spaces inward (to a large reflecting pool), and disengaging his building from the street with impenetrably thick concrete walls, a largely anonymous aluminum paneled wall fronting a surface parking lot.
What explains Piano's deferential approach to his museum designs? For his Kimbell scheme, the reasons seem evident given the architectural context- Louis Kahn's building achieved an inspiring union between the modern and the ancient. The existing building grounds its distinctly modern materials and structural systems of the modern era with the primal volumes, symmetry, elegant proportions, and the permanence attributed to mass. Its concrete barrel vaults, with daylight bathing the ceiling unmistakeably reminds one of ancient Roman baths, while the travertine infill walls, though hung as panels in typically modern fashion exude permanence in time. Outside, Kahn's museum, sitting on a shallow podium reminiscent of Greek temples, romantically alludes to a classical past, with a front entry portico extending out to a shady green lawn. The trickling sound from the symmetrically- arranged reflecting pools along the podium's edge greet the visitor, preparing him for serene experience of viewing art beyond.

Except that this highly formal procession into Kahn's building is completely unknown to almost all visitors to the museum. Foolishly believing that visitors would parallel park their cars along the quiet drive several hundred feet across a green lawn, Kahn did not foresee a large surface lot across the street behind the museum (part of which would later become Ando's modern art museum). The dozens of times I went to see an exhibit, our car was parked at that lot, we would cross the street and descend down a ramp, walk around a Juan Miro sculpture to a car drop-off at the bottom and enter through the main back door and once inside climb up the stairs to the main gallery level. It never occured to me that one was supposed to come in from the opposite side until I was told of this during a field trip for architecture school. Like everyone else I knew, the front side was more of pleasant kind of 'backyard' feature.
If anything else, Piano's new addition will correct this major oversight by virtue of placing an underground garage that forces visitors arriving at grade level to face Kahn's intended entrance. Yet it is the reserved character of Piano's scheme juxtaposed directly across that will make Kahn's building appear even more 'classical'. According to the recently released elevation renderings, the new addition will be divided in three bays to near exact proportions of the existing building across from it. Like Kahn, these bays are articulated with seemingly thin columns supporting very beams. Like Kahn, Piano reserves the middle bay for public circulation and flanks it with bays containing exhibit galleries at both sides. Like Kahn, water is used as compositional element in the plan, strengthening the space between the old and new and a transforming it from a 'backyard' to a formal court.
Aside from his typical use of delicate building elements and transparent views, where Piano departs most is in the design of the addition's sides at the south and north. He screens them with columns, which support twinned wood beams carrying his typically elaborate multi-layered roof. The rendering of the south elevation instantly harkens to a breezy Greek colonnade, while Kahns' arches infilled with solid walls adjacent to it alludes to old massive structures from Rome. Though still far from the Lancaster Street to the south, the addition's south colonnade still serve as a gesture that engages it at a distance. Those driving by the major Fort Worth traffic artery of 7th Street whill be treated to the addition's north colonnade before seeing Philip Johnson's classically-inspired portico for the Amon Carter museum just beyond to the West. Piano's scheme seems to reinforce the overall identity of the city's cultural district as an collection of pavilions in a park. The addition's colonnaded porches finally program the lawn areas in way that Kahn's massive aesthetic was far too insular to do.

Judging from the released drawings and models alone, it is apparent that Piano took steps not to overpower Kahn's original. By drawing on an incipient classicism and a high personal regard for the twentieth-century master (he once worked for Kahn early in his career), Piano's traditional approach to prior museums in Texas seem to ensure that Kahn's building will be tastefully complemented, or even futher enhanced. But will it be any good?
For as widely admired and accomplished as he already is, it is very difficult to deem any of his projects as bad. But my own personal estimation of Piano's work depends largely on aspects that make his work unique and sets it apart. These aspects consist of his exquisite attention to detail, the clarity of his spaces, his sophisticated proportions and naturally, the ingenious modulation of daylight. A weak project is when he drifts away from these qualities, usually because the program or the scale of the project. A strong project is when all these aspects are integrated harmoniously, which seem to found mostly in Piano's smaller cultural projects. The criteria that has been set is not completely arbitrary, but it correlates to how Piano himself describes his practice-that of a workshop. The official name of his firm is "The Renzo Piano Building Workshop" and the first image one sees upon visiting his website a wall covered in assorted wood models and mock-ups of detailed building components. In an exhibit in his own Nasher Sculpture Center, dozens of elaborate models were on display, less of entire buildings than of structural systems, exterior wall and roofing cladding studies, much of it made with wood. Coming out of that exhibit, I marveled how much his firm must of have budgeted for such nice materials to make models that are often not reimbursed by the client. The firm I work for, among the world's largest, has almost completely abandoned building physical-models in-house, thanks to better modeling software and outsourcing.
Moreover, the copious amount of detailed models testify to an attitude towards architecture as more of a craft than as art. These models reveal an obsessive examination of how parts are assembled and how they relate to each other functionally and aesthetically. By calling his firm a workshop, he alludes to the practice of building design as it was done during the middle ages. Gothic churches were not the result of beautiful detailed drawings prepared a master artist (which began to happen during the Renaissance), but were rather the accumulation of shop secrets and mock-ups made by the master mason and his apprentices. The masons were concerned with how smaller components of a building were crafted, and how to solved the transitions between them in sculptural way. Few if any new what the final building would look like, and often they would not be completed in their lifetimes. Therefore most attention to parts that would look attractive on their own, namely the typical structural bay of piers, windows, and ribbed vaults. Classical proportion, which precisely sizes all elements of a building in relation to the overall size and shape of the building, was of little use to the master masons and gothic churches in general. The result was nonetheless beautiful style, exalted precisely for qualities that were antithetical to classicism-it was capricious, assymetric, distorted while not honestly acknowledging the forces of nature in its aesthetic. But because it was highly sculptural and fluid, the gothic style could be applied to a variety of shapes and volumes, especially when a vertical solution was required.

This quasi-medieval devotion in detailing elements is what ties all the work in Piano's long and illustrious portfolio of built projects. From giant airports to temporary gallery installations, one cannot fault his relentless pursuit in crafting each and every component. He expresses himself in the language of modern architecture and engineering, but he chooses to work in a gothic mode. The problem is that Modernism is a completely different language than the Gothic, and cannot replicate the latter's flexibility, fluidity and ornamental depth. The Modern language is difficult to scale properly, at times being to dull or brutal if made large and other times consisting of too many unintelligible parts if made too small. I find that Piano errs towards the latter, especially in his larger projects such as his New York Times skyscraper or his multi-storied addition to the Chicago Art Institute. The facade of the Times building is amazingly intricate, consisting of a meticulously conceived exterior sunshade screen--but to what end? From afar the tower is similar in shape and effect to countless others in New York. The fine detailing isn't appreciated 40 stories up in the air from those passing by outside on the street below. And I wonder how many of the occupants enjoy not having an unobstructed view of the city, but instead are street to thin metal louvers quickly collecting grime. In Chicago, Piano's trademark multi-layered roof is on display, but it has the problem of providing wonderful daylight on to lucky galleries on the top floor. The galleries below the top level completely miss out from the phenomena, and thus rely on artificial lighting. The detailed richness of the roof canopy is lost to those on the street, floating four stories above on spindly tall columns, resembling more a corporate KPF building than a Renzo Piano original.
By contrast, his best projects are ones low and small enough to allow visitors to see the sophisticated handiwork up close. The Menil Collection does this very well and the Nasher even more so, due to its shorter proportions. To enjoy Piano's buildings is to enjoy his roofs, and those two projects encourage this. At the Nasher, you don't squint at all to marvel at the thin cables, the custom joinery, and the eggcrate pattern of his sunshade, and how they all function together. This also applies to more vertically oriented small projects as well, such his Tjibaou Cultural Center in New Caledonia. The assembly of the wood slats to wood fins is low and close enought for all to absorb and appreciate. It is a very physical experience, in that one can only appreciate the architecture as completed construction, and Piano is one of the rare architects in which his completed project looks better than the artisitic renderings that preceded it. That is saying something these days, as a number of notable architects build their reputation on artistic imagery before they are complete their first commission. In that situation, the architecture is based on the power of a rendering, and the final built product is usually a letdown. With Piano, you can't judge any of his projects until they are finished.
With that in mind, my intial judgement on Piano's addition to the Kimbell will have to wait until it opens in 2013. Still, I can be confident that the result will be pleasing, even if it may seem subdued to many others who expect a museum to make a bold statement. Given the preliminary facts that the addition applies a lot of the features that make his other Texas museums successful, such as their relative smallness, their simple, yet symmetrical plans (quite like Kahn) and their elegant proportions, Piano's design should complement the Kimbell nicely. The outdoor experience around the original museum is sure to be enhanced as well as its engagement with the surrounding urban fabric. Kimbells' design has achieved a timelessness that still make it a destination for architecture enthusiasts. In my own pantheon of great architects, Piano is one of the few who can likely achieve timeless designs as well, even in in his own precise architectural language. Fort Worth can only be so lucky!