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.