uurimusi arhitektuurist ja teooriast
investigations on architecture and theory

Patricia Cummings Loud. A Visit to the Kimbell Art Museum

This museum, the last building architect Louis I. Kahn saw to completion during his lifetime, opened in the first week of October 1972. It is now among the architect’s best-known buildings: the Yale Art Gallery and the Yale British Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut, those two being the first important public building in his career and the last, completed posthumously; the Richards Medical Research Building at the University of Pennsylvania; the Salk Institute buildings in La Jolla, California; the Phillips Exeter Library in Exeter, New Hampshire; the buildings of the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, India; and the complex of the national capital of Bangladesh in Dhaka. The range of building types and institutions for which Kahn found new expression in his search for the fundamentals of meaning and use is extraordinary. But the undoubted masterpiece of all the museums constructed in the United States over the past forty years remains the Kimbell, recognized by the architectural profession as a whole and by the public with near unanimity.

This serene and peaceful building with delicate but unforgettable interior light has become more than a museum that offers a city, a state and a region an opportunity to enjoy and learn from great artistic achievement of the past. The program asked Kahn for a building that would furnish “warmth, mellowness and even elegance…a visitor to an art museum ought to be charmed…The spaces, forms and textures should maintain a harmonious simplicity and human proportion between the visitor and the building and the art objects observed…Natural light should play a vital part in illumination…The visitor must be able to relate to nature momentarily from time to time.” (Pre-Architectural Program) The museum does provide what many find to be a profound, if unusual, architectural experience as a setting for a small, remarkable collection of fine art. It has become a pilgrimage destination for people from throughout the world. What these visitors seek may differ for individuals, but from what I have heard many say, it appears they find rewards within what Louis Kahn would call “a great treasury”. He said in a discussion shortly before the Kimbell Art Museum opened that “A museum seems like a secondary thing, unless it is a great treasury. A treasury, a guarded love of your source.” (The Invisible City, International Design Conference at Aspen, Colorado, June 1972) At that time, he added: A museum should spread out.

The first thing you need in most museums is a cup of coffee. You feel so tired immediately.
A museum needs a garden.
You walk in a garden and you can either come in or not. This large garden tells you that you may walk in to see the things or you may walk out. Completely free. You are not forced … it’s all part of the visual history, the sense of the unmeasurable.

When it opened, critics warmly welcomed the new museum. “You don’t feel regimented as you do in some museums as you go from gallery to gallery. It makes the viewer have a different kind of experience. You feel a new relationship with the paintings and objects that are here.” (Saint Louis Post Dispatch) “It’s one of the greatest buildings of its kind in the world.” (New York Times) “This is absolutely a marvelous museum. It is a uniquely conceived building and it sticks to the human dimension in spite of its scale.” (L’Oeil) “I’ve never seen a building that was such a work of art, architecturally. The idea of it: that works of art are not created with stable conditions but in changing light in a building at once lofty and intimate, firmly based on architectural traditions, yet daringly innovative.” (Los Angeles Times)

These evaluations seem mere preamble to the announcement by the American Institute of Architects when the Kimbell was chosen for their 1998 Twenty-Five-Year Award for a building design of enduring significance. “One of the indisputable masterpieces of 20th-century architecture, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth exemplifies many of the key ideas behind the work of Louis Kahn.” (Architectural Record, May 1998) It was the fourth such award for a building by Louis I. Kahn, the others being in 1979 (Yale University Art Gallery), in 1992 (Salk Institute for Biological Studies), and in 1997 (Phillips Exeter Academy Library). The fifth was made in 2005 for the Yale Center for British Art, establishing a record number of such awards to a single architect. Of course, Kahn also was given international awards during his lifetime as well.

The Kimbell Art Museum has remained a favorite among admirers of Kahn’s architecture and among devotees of museums with distinguished collections. The quality most frequently cited, even celebrated, is its lighting, an aspect so important that the title of the first publication on the building’s architecture was titled, at Louis Kahn’s own suggestion, Light Is the Theme (Fort Worth, Kimbell Art Museum, 1975).

Who are the visitors? Why do they come? Speculations are made here on a sample observed by a curator of architecture who has met and assisted many during twenty-five years in the Kimbell Art Museum, but any categorization of reasons for their visits must remain flexible since some who come to concentrate on one quality of the museum or its contents often become enchanted with another. One curator from New York arrived and announced a program of spending a day devoted to the building and another fixed entirely on the collection.

A list some of the visitors during the past year will suggest their diversity. There were museum and architecture professionals and other special interest groups: the director and donors from the Cincinnati Contemporary Art Center (with a new museum designed by Zaha Hadid); two Spanish architects who lectured on their firm’s work on museums in Spain for the Dallas Architecture Forum and several other architects from that country (separately) participating in the same lecture series; a group of three businessmen clients representing a major Japanese corporation with their architect planning a new museum for Tokyo (their visit was part of a tour of museums, and a client later wrote to tell me the Kimbell Art Museum was their favorite); another group of museum directors and collectors of contemporary art from Orange County, California; an architect from Vancouver, designer of that city’s Chan Center for the Performing Arts, who is heading a major Fort Worth redevelopment along the Trinity River; heads of architectural programs at Cornell and Manitoba Universities visiting the local Architectural School at the University of Texas in Arlington; two groups of Japanese architects, one of twelve, the other of nineteen; members of an art association in South Texas who wished to see and learn about the history of the Kimbell Art Museum; and a Collectors Group from the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Then there are visiting scholars and researchers engaged on their own projects for which the Kimbell Art Museum forms a part: a graduate student from Israel with a dissertation topic on museum lighting (he spent a week in observation and research); a professor from the University of Virginia here to make photographs for his book; an educator from the Museum of Modern Art in New York who wanted to confer on the career and work of Louis Kahn; an architect-engineer from Los Angeles studying and writing on the Louis Kahn/August Komendant relationship (who shared his research); and a professional conservator and lighting consultant specializing on lighting in museums.

Of course there are architecture students and faculty members: a large group from the architecture department of the University of Arizona (the faculty seem to come semi-annually with different students); an assistant dean of architecture from Washington University in Saint Louis with graduate students; an architecture professor (who spoke at Kahn Days on Saaremaa last October) from the University of Florida with students and other faculty; an architect who teaches at Rice University in Houston and the emeritus dean of the architecture school at the University of Texas at Arlington, together with their blended group of twenty-one students; architecture students and faculty from Kansas State University on an annual trip extending over several days to see architecture in the Dallas/Fort Worth vicinity; a group of ninety architecture students from the University of Texas in Austin who came by bus with faculty to visit and sketch on their own; fifteen interns with summer jobs in Fort Worth architectural firms; the dean of architecture at the University of Houston with his class of students as well as another smaller one.

It has not been unusual for calls and emails to come from architects and architecture professors in Stockholm and Dresden, or from England, Australia, France, Switzerland, and Italy asking if they might visit and study the Kimbell Art Museum, occasionally bringing their students with them. The encounters listed do not include numerous impromptu sessions on the museum’s architecture and art with some visitors and occasional students who appear without advance notice and make special requests. (Docent tours for ten or more people need to be arranged two weeks in advance.) I try to accommodate individual visitors whose interest is serious whenever possible, often discovering my own understanding deepened by unexpected inquiries.

What do these visitors take away with them? Much depends on them. They encounter a simple, contemporary classic building that suggests a Roman villa with a central recessed portico fronted by a forecourt with a grove planted with regularly-spaced wild hollies and two pools with gentle fountains beside the two outer porticos. The whole ensemble is set on the east end of an approximately nine and a half-acre landscaped park. George Patton of Philadelphia was landscape architect (he and Kahn had been at the American Academy in Rome together in 1952 and the classical echoes are notable). Helen Pattison of Patton’s firm worked closely with Kahn on the project, especially on the terracing of the terrain near the structure. From the front (the west) the building appears a single story. From the other three sides it can be seen that the piano nobile of galleries is actually raised with a lower story acting as a podium, and the surrounding grounds are sculpted into courtyards and parking plazas.

Inside the museum are large, spacious galleries lit by diffused natural light emanating from the metal reflectors shielding the skylights and by reflections from the concrete surfaces of the vaults overhead. Other light enters from two glazed courtyards within the galleries. Narrow light slots and lunettes under the ends of the vaults introduce other subtle light sources and emphasize the building’s details. Works of art of the highest aesthetic quality, chosen from many of the cultures in the history of humankind and in many mediums and styles are displayed in a simple setting with a limited palette of materials, colors, textures, and tonalities. The architect believed in using natural materials in their natural state (and even said he thought of concrete as a natural material). Thus where there is carpet, it is of wool that has not been bleached or dyed; quarter-sawn white oak appears in an unstained, natural state. Interior space seems to glow with what the architect called silvery light reflecting against the smooth concrete overhead. Visitors and objects alike exist in a unified space. The effect has been called magical by several observers. One visitor recently told me that she had merely stopped by to “bathe” in Louis Kahn’s luminous spaces; she would come back another time to see the special exhibition currently on view. She seemed to be saying that the building’s environment was enough for a spiritual lift even when there was not enough time to look thoughtfully at art. The art of architecture was fulfilling its role.

Architects, students, historians, and museum professionals search out more professional and factual observations: what are these materials, textures, juxtapositions, design elements – the “how” of the magic. The list could be endless and may more or less focused on particular, immediate projects and studies of their own. Students never tire of making sketches. Sometimes there are later appeals from visitors questioning what material was used or how a specific architectural feature was accomplished. Over the years, curators and museum directors who have loaned collections from their institutions and seen them installed in the Kimbell galleries have often smiled as they looked over the final installation of a special exhibition and said to our waiting Kimbell staff, “These works have never looked better than they do here.” The observation is a commendation on both their works of art and the place and manner of their display.

This is true even when the works themselves are so light sensitive they must be shielded from the usual filtered light in the galleries. In February 2007 a remarkable exhibition of Japanese painting from the late seventeenth- to the mid-nineteenth centuries (on silk, paper, and wood) in the Kimbell Art Museum brought forth such a comment from a curator from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Even though the lunettes and light slots were thoroughly blocked from admitting light, a glass wall of a courtyard facing a gallery was covered, and the reflectors themselves were damped down by placing felt over them, the scrolls and panels in the exhibition were enhanced in the spatial ambiance created by moveable walls and the travertine “wall-paper” (Kahn’s words) of the building. With expertly controlled electrical illumination that seems all but imperceptible in the reduced level of modulated natural light, a visitor sees the paintings revealed in all their color, their subtlety, or their vigor. The viewer’s eyes have adjusted to the necessary lower light level required for these spectacular paintings while still experiencing the compatible environment for art in the Kimbell Art Museum.

Over space and time Kahn’s vision of the museum still works magic. Architecture as well as light remains its glory.

March 13, 2007

Patricia C. Loud is a curator of architecture of Kimbell Art Museum. She has published both books and articles, also visited Estonia several times.