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Shining a light: How the 50-year-old Kimbell Art Museum changed museum design

Kimbell interior (2).jpg
Kimbell Art Museum
Turning the brutal Texas sunlight into silvery moonlight: the interior of the Kimbell Art Museum -- with Louis Kahn's 'reflectors' along the ceilings of the vaults.

Architect Louis Kahn's design has long been hailed for its calm clarity — but also as a breakthrough in how museums handle daylight.

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Kimbell Art Museum. We break down some of the reasons the Kimbell itself — the stone and concrete and steel building — is such a landmark of modern architecture. And museum design.

1. It's a seamless fusion of the classic and the modern.

Louis Kahn's design of the Kimbell's main building is a marvel of calm and apparent simplicity. With its concise shapes that are minimalist in form but have elegant surfaces, contemporary materials and significant structural details: This is unmistakably a modernist building.

At the same time, Kahn's columns and vaulted ceilings recall ancient temples, even the travertine stone evokes old marble.

"It is a Roman building," architect Renzo Piano has said.

That sense of the sun-bleached Mediterranean bathes the museum. It's in the shimmering, waterfall fountains, the grove of yaupon trees that suggest an orchard or vineyard.

This is North Texas' little bit of Tuscany.

Consider what Piano also said about the Kimbell:

"There are so many good reason[s] this building became a landmark. It is a masterpiece of clarity, structure, well-built, well-done. There's also what I call a historical depth in that building. You feel like swimming in a piece of history."

Piano should know. He designed the Kimbell annex, the Piano Pavillion, and worked for Kahn when he was starting out. He still calls him "the master."

Italian architect Renzo Piano talks to journalists in Paris in 2014.
Eric Feferberg
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AFP/Getty Images
Italian architect Renzo Piano talks to journalists in Paris in 2014.

2. But Kahn's achievement actually eludes or surpasses such labels.

Fort Worth architect Mark Gunderson has written and spoken about the Kimbell extensively. He said Kahn actually didn't think in any of those terms, modern or classic, ancient or new.

"Certainly, when it came to this art historical idea of styles," Gunderson said, "those were not something that Lou really cared about. He would just believe that if you were true to the work, if you searched for the essence of the thing, it would give a calmness and a sense that a detail couldn't be any other way, that the materials had just come together for that one purpose."

This is the immediate way the Kimbell can impress a viewer: as timeless, even inevitable in the way, for instance, the white oak wood, the steel and concrete are in a harmony of cream, grey and off-white.

That spectrum is certainly handsome but it's also shrewd: It permits paintings and sculptures to stand out in the galleries — even as it's a warmer and more subtle palette than the usual blank gallery-white.

Fort Worth architect and author Mark Gunderson.
Anne Chan
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RTKL
Fort Worth architect Mark Gunderson.

3. But for all its peacefulness and perfection, the Kimbell also presents a revolution — in the way art museums handle sunlight.

Piano was certainly influenced by this in his design of the Nasher Sculpture Center, the de Menil Museum in Houston and the Piano Pavillion.

"Light is the most important material here," Piano said of the Kimbell. "And the light is the Texas light. And working with light in Texas is a special adventure."

Sunlight is key, Gunderson said, "because if you think of the function of an art museum, it's really two completely contradictory things. One is the storage of their artifacts in perpetuity. So it's about protection of something in every way possible. The contradictory part is that you want to try to open this up for as many people as possible to see. And daylight is very detrimental to most artworks."

Sunlight fades paint, it acts like acid on paper. It can even help corrode steel. That's why, for centuries, most art museums have been giant, sealed, storage boxes. They might as well be bank vaults.

4. So why did Kahn and the first Kimbell director, Richard F. Brown, want to bring daylight inside the museum?

Daylight is simply the best way to view most artworks. It's the light most often used by artists when creating their works. In fact, since at least the Renaissance, artists have worked to find the right light in their studios: a clear, typically Northern light. (Light from any other direction picks up the sky's yellows and oranges as the sun rises and sets.) Hence, the Parisian tradition of the atelier studio. Rooftop apartments were generally cheaper (all those stairs to climb), but they also had sunlight.

"From the very beginning," Gunderson said, "Kahn spoke of a silvery light, which he thought was the optimum lighting for artwork."

5. Right. So daylight is desirable but it's also dangerous. What was Kahn's solution?

"There would be a roof that had an aperture," Gunderson said, "an opening that ran the length of the building -- and then a reflector underneath made of aluminum. The point of it was that daylight would enter, and it would hit this reflector and the reflector would bounce it off of the underside of the roof structure" — seeming to make the smooth concrete vaults glow.

Kimbell Art museum south.jpg
Jerome Weeks
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KERA News
The Kimbell Art Museum evokes classic Roman buildings with its columns and vaulted roofs made of concrete and travertine, like ancient stone. But it's also unmistakably modern, precise, calm.

And Kahn achieved this soft, indirect sunlight without any mechanism, without any electric light. That idea has changed museum design.

"I think of it," Gunderson said, "as a kind of converter, an alchemical converter that turns West Texas sunlight into moonlight."

6. OK. All of that is brilliant. But not everything about the Kimbell has been perfect.

It's hard not to forget that for decades, visitors entered the museum through what was essentially the back entrance. That issue was eventually solved — to some degree — with the addition of the underground parking garage and the Piano Pavillion. Now most visitors can appreciate the Kahn building from the vantage point that was originally intended: facing it from the west.

But how did such a remarkable achievement in design ever end up with that wrong-way entrance?

"I think it would help to understand that Kahn never owned a car in his life," said Gunderson. "He took taxis all around Philadelphia or had someone else driving. And if you were with him while he designed the project, over how many years, you would see cars were almost never even addressed until the last moment when building code told him how many cars he had to have."

In other words, that entrance was motivated by the notion that an art museum is a leisure activity but also a contemplative one. Hence, the park around the Kimbell, all of the grass: Kahn hoped it would entice us to stroll around, to enjoy the fountains and the grove of trees before reaching the front entrance.

"Many of Lou's buildings included an ambulatory or a way to walk around the building before you had to go in," Gunderson said. "If you came into an art museum, he didn't want you to immediately have to start looking at artwork."

The Kimbell was 'flawed' because most of us just want to get to our destination, get into building, get into the galleries and get back to our cars.

Yet with its restaurant and sunny inner courtyard, and with, again, that entire sense of a country estate in Italy, the Kimbell lends itself to browsing and relaxing but also savoring. It's meant precisely as a step out of time, a step away from our hurried, frazzled existence.

Which is why, when you enter the Kimbell, you're facing the bookstore. Kahn, Gunderson said, basically saw the whole museum as a kind of bookstore.

We enter and the Kimbell's layout extends on either side — like an open book for us to get lost in.

The Kimbell's 50th anniversary celebration will be Saturday, Oct. 8. They include free entrance and a performance by Fort Worth singer-songwriter Abraham Alexander.

Got a tip? Email Jerome Weeks at jweeks@kera.org. You can follow him on Twitter @dazeandweex.

Art&Seek is made possible through the generosity of our members. If you find this reporting valuable, consider making a tax-deductible gift today. Thank you.

Jerome Weeks is the Art&Seek producer-reporter for KERA. A professional critic for more than two decades, he was the book columnist for The Dallas Morning News for ten years and the paper’s theater critic for ten years before that. His writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, American Theatre and Men’s Vogue magazines.