Evaluation: The Kimbell Museum

A turbulent decade in the development of 20th century architecture has passed since the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth first opened its doors in October 1972. It has been 10 long years of what Ada Louise Huxtable has termed the “architectural Punic Wars” – pitting the reigning monarchy of modernism against a ragtag band of counter-revolutionaries we have come to call postmodernists. The Kimbell Museum, along with the standing of its author, the late Louis I. Kahn, seems to have survived the battle admirably-withstanding the verbal fusillades and cloying alliances of both sides to emerge, at this point, remarkably strong and poised, even strengthened by the fray.

It is difficult to ascertain whether this striking durability has come from nonpartisanship in the battle or from a sort of “double agent” complicity with both camps. The Kimbell Museum’s candid materiality, its tectonic clarity, and its scrupulous absence of applied ornamentation have won it high esteem in modernist quarters. It safely eschews the irony, juxtapositions, and overt humor of the postmodernists in favor of a convincing cohesiveness and unity that the modernists admire.

And yet, across the battlefield, the Kimbell Museum has also been welcomed in the postmodern camp. Its historical allusions that conjure images of Ostia, Pompeii, Hadrian’s villa, and Egyptian tombs endear the building to the rebel warriors. They revel in its eclecticism. They laud its Beaux-Arts composition, its theatrical displays of light and color, and its profound emotional potency. It has won high regard in their camp as well.

Reporters in the field have been somewhat confounded by the elusive dexterity of the building over the decade. It seems to defy classification. This ambiguity has been convincing enough to merit the Kimbell Museum the rare distinction among major post-1945 buildings of having escaped inclusion in all of Charles Jencks’ books, from Modern Movements to Post-Modern Architecture to Late-Modern Architecture. The building scorns labels.

But if the Kimbell Museum is hard to label, it is not difficult to describe. It is a work of great beauty and charm. It is powerful, awesome, and inspiring. It is sincere, warm, and humane. It is truly one of the great buildings of our time.

The story of the success of the Kimbell Art Museum begins, not with the hiring of its esteemed architect in 1967, but two years earlier when the trustees of the Kimbell Foundation appointed Dr. Richard Fargo Brown as director of the budding museum. Industrialist Kay Kimbell had bequeathed his personal collection of more than 350 art objects, largely 18th and 19th century European works, as the embryo from which the museum’s holdings would grow. He had also provided the capital funds necessary for a strong acquisitions program as well as for a home for the museum. Brown’s challenge from the trustees was to build both a collection and a building that would distinguish the Kimbell Art Museum as one of the finest institutions of its size in the Country.

Richard Brown, it seems, was the ideal person to meet this challenge. As director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art he had. watched politics and a headstrong board of trustees create William Pereira’s lavish angel food cake on Wilshire Boulevard. Brown’s personal choice of Mies van der Rohe as architect had been pre-empted, as had many of his requirements for the function of the new building. Brown had also served as an adviser to the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth during the period when that museum built Philip Johnson’s craftsmanlike pavilion just up the hill from where the Kimbell was later to be located. In the case of the Amon Carter, the building had been built before a museum director was hired and then had required significant alterations and additions shortly after its opening. The success of the Kimbell Museum was to be founded in part on the flaws of the L.A. County Museum and the Amon Carter.

Brown had stipulated, before accepting the post of director, that he should have full control of architect selection and client input in the Kimbell building program, and the foundation trustees had agreed. Brown had a clear vision of the emergent museum. He had established priorities for the collection’s acquisitions program that emphasized old masters and non-Western art partly in response to the existing Kimbell collection and partly to complement the holdings of neighboring institutions-the to Fort Worth Art Center, which handled contemporary works, and the Amon Carter, which emphasized American art. Brown sought “works of art of definitive quality” – masterworks that could maintain their strength as isolated objects rather than in relation to other works or movements. His early background at the Frick Museum in New York City had given him a love for intimate communion with art objects and an understanding of the profound effect of the environment in staging the confrontation of object and observer.

Brown assembled a lengthy and detailed pre-architectural program that described specific qualities of the place he envisioned. He understood his Fort Worth clientele well. He realized that a well built, beautiful building that was, in itself, a work of art could be a drawing card – a powerful entree into the Texas art world. He knew that the most basic and potent appreciation of art is through appeal to people’s senses. He observed “The overwhelming percentage of people whom this building is in¬tended to serve will not be art historians, other architects, or progressive artists with a sophisticated background in architectural form. Their total experience of a visit to the museum should be one of warmth, mellowness, and even elegance… A visitor to an art museum ought to be charmed; otherwise, why should we expect him to come?”

Brown drew a verbal picture that described an atypical museum for the times. He had rejected the bland box interiors of the recent Whitney Museum, the L.A. County Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art additions. He said, “Museum people have been after closed dark rooms so they can paint the walls white, light them with artificial light, and control the situation. But by having control of the situation, they don’t realize their system has control of them.” He was adamant about the vital role of natural light, observing that, “We are not after a measurable physical quantity, or a physiological reaction; we are after a psychological effect through which the museum visitor feels that both he and the art he came to see are still a part of the real, rotating, changeable world.”

In the summer of 1966, pre-architectural program in hand, Richard Brown began to contact a distinguished list of architects including Paul Rudolph, Gordon Bunshaft, Mies van der Rohe, I. M. Pei, Edward L. Barnes, and Louis Kahn. Brown chose Kahn, he said, because, “I felt Louis Kahn would approach this problem like Adam, for the first time…. He’s willing to let the specific situation posed by the creation of a building guide him and tell him what the structure, engineering, and esthetic ought to be.” At least in this instance, it seems Brown was right. The building pays startling allegiance not only to the director’s well defined program, but also to particulars of site, climate, and regional character. Its ruggedness, flatness, tawny naturalness of surface and color, and especially the way it copes with the some¬times brutal sun make it part and parcel of where it is.

In so responding to this specific situation, Kahn created a building that is something of an enigma relative to his other Works, both before and after the Kimbell commission. It was observed, while the building was still in late developmental stages, that its design was “not what one would expect” of Louis Kahn. Shortly after the building’s completion historian William Jordy noted that the building was not “in any sense ‘monumental’ in the grand manner of the elaborate layouts of the Salk center, the capitol at Dacca, and the Institute of Management at Ahmedabad. … Nor does it boast the complex skylines of the Richards building and the vivid imagery of clustered towers that followed in its Wake.” There were, further, no great monumental spaces inside as Kahn had created in the otherwise more restrained volumes of the Exeter library and the Center for British Art and Studies at Yale University.

The program’s imposition of a 40-foot height limit on the building in order to preserve the view from the neighboring Amon Carter Museum had suggested a low, flat profile for the building, which was not the sort of massing Kahn had been accustomed to using in important institutional buildings. From his earliest conceptual sketches the scheme seemed to draw on previously untapped sources of form in Kahn. The repetitive series of linear vaults emerged quite early in what was to be a long design process.

The origin of the vaults is a point of considerable conjecture among Kimbell aficionados. Some Fort Worth locals, when they first got a sense of the building’s form during construction, swore that the museum was building a grain elevator turned on its side. Fort Worth, being a center of grain production, is dotted with massive cyclindrical tower groups. Kay Kimbell had, in fact, made his initial fortune in the grain business.
Other natives dispute the “grain elevator” source and are convinced that Kahn took one look at the Fort Worth stockyards, only a block from his site, and fell in love with their clean, repetitive barrel forms. They say the continuous light monitor at the apex of the stockyard vaults is the dead giveaway. Where else could Kahn have gotten the atectonic notion of interrupting the vault’s continuity to create a light source at the top?

Director Richard Brown did not take the local theories too seriously. Although these forms may have sparked a remembrance in Kahn, Brown believed that the barrel series laid together “was already in Lou Kahn’s mind and had been for a long time” when he got the commission. As Kahn began to understand the project, he reached for the vault forms as ideal for it.

The source for the forms’ presence in Kahn’s mind may well have been Le Corbusier, whom Kahn repeatedly referred to as his “teacher.” Corbusier had been fascinated by the space-making potential of vaults in series as early as the 1930s and as late as his project for the Venice Hospital, which he was working on at the time of his death in 1965. His unrealized Farming Cooperative Village of 1934 had proposed a horizontal series of vaults alongside vertical grain elevators of similar form and proportion. Corbusier had even suggested the odd structural device of supporting the vaults on columns at their ends, making the vaults act as great curved beams rather than as an extension of walls.

One of Le Corbusier’s few realized projects using the vault forms was the Villa Sarabhai in Ahmedabad, India, which was built in the mid-’50s. Vicram Sarabhai was one of Kahn’s clients for the Indian Institute of Management, also in Ahmedabad – a project that was in design stages when the commission came for the Kimbell Museum.

Wherever the vaults originated, it seems clear by their great success and sophistication that their selection was not meretricious. They are the essence of the building – the inspiration for the design as well as its taskmaster. It is the vaults that give the building its loftiness as well as its intimacy; the vaults that light the space with their silvery, luminiscent glow; the vaults that make the “rooms” of the building while at the same time providing the flexibility of uninterrupted clear spans. It is the nonhierarchical vaults that give the building its order and its rhythm, injecting character into an otherwise undistinguished massing and solving the problem of the fifth facade, the roof, which is visible from the hill above.

It is the vaults that lock the building onto its site, paralleling a double row of former street trees that frame the museum park to the west. And it is the vaults, again, that open graciously to make a triple porch on the park facade, intimating the arcade of the trees a few yards away. The vaults, executed as they are in smooth, lustrous concrete, create a mystic presence in the building, generating a feeling of timelessness and peace. They are a magical device.

But it is also the vaults that stiffen the museum’s plan, forcing a number of building functions into spaces that are ill-suited for them. The lecture hall, for example, is jammed into a single tunnel-like vault space, creating an uncomfortable relationship between speaker and audience and denying the design freedom to deal sensibly with projection and acoustics. The library reading room is shoved up under a vault, creating an awkward closeness to the concrete curve and forcing a notably inelegant lighting solution. The inappropriateness of the vault as a space-making device for administration offices forced those functions into the “servant” podium below the main floor of the building. The regrettable dearth of light and view on the lower floor contrasts sadly with the exquisite attention to the glories of natural light on the upper floor. One occupant noted his office to be like nothing so much as a prison. There is little sense of the time of day or what the weather is like outside.

Such complaints about the building, however, must be coerced from those who work there, who, in general, exude an impressive respect and affection for their building. David Robb, chief curator since the museum’s opening, considers the building “an architectural joy. Exhibition installation, research, conservation, lectures, administration, etc. – all these curatorial activities are facilitated enormously by the humane character of Kahn’s sensitive design. Esthetically and functionally, the building works.

Dr. Edmund Pillsbury, who became director after Richard Brown’s death in 1979, is equally impressed. Pillsbury’s background, which includes positions both at the Kahn-designed Yale Art Museum and at the Yale Center for British Art and Studies, prepared him to expect a great deal from a Kahn building. He considers the Kimbell Museum “far more exciting and dramatic than the Yale buildings. As a pure piece of architecture the building is a classic – a great building.” He sees a sense of perfection in the Kimbell that is akin to Brunelleschi’s nave of S. Spirito or the Pazzi Chapel. Pillsbury credits the Kimbell’s classic quality to the freedom Kahn had in design. Because the collection was not fleshed out and the museum as an institution had no history, Kahn was creating an ideal from scratch.

In many ways, the building has been a point of departure and inspiration for the growing museum. Pillsbury notes that in this first decade the architecture has been “a great draw – probably more than the collection. The building sells the art because it is such a quality piece of architecture.” He also comments that it is “very challenging to find works of art on a par with the work of architecture.” The building’s intimacy and charm make it ideal for a certain kind of art. It is a shrine for the small masterpiece – the Reubens sketch, the Corot landscape. The space and the light are ideal for ceramics and pre-Columbian objects that must be viewed “in the round.” Pillsbury admits that the building’s ambiance has influenced acquisitions. Collection and building are becoming, more and more, a single art experience.

Pillsbury is consciously attempting to fine-tune that confluence of experience. In March 1981, ‘after a major temporary exhibition had required the clearing of the large south gallery, he chose to test the building’s flexibility by reinstalling the permanent collection in a strikingly different way than it had been arranged originally. He laid aside some of the axial and theatrical qualities of the initial installation in favor of a more chronological and didactic organization of the collection. Most of the original furniture was removed, extracting some of the domestic, sitting-room atmosphere of the gallery. The experiment has drawn out a range in the building’s ambiance that had not been evident before. That range has also been tested by the variety of cultural events that have come to occur regularly in the building. The Kimbell Museum has become a sort of salon for the city, inviting lectures, films, concerts, and recitals into its halls. Music in the gallery space is a particularly special event.

It is perhaps in a concert at the Kimbell Museum that one can best sense the art and poetry of Louis Kahn – Kahn the pianist, Kahn the philosopher, Kahn the mystic, Kahn the connoisseur, Kahn the architect. His was a sensual art, full of emotion and sentiment. He was a modern romantic. His Kimbell Art Museum speaks the language of human experience. It is a building to touch and feel – pocked satin of travertine alongside the mottled “liquid stone” of concrete, honey-colored oak against cool blue stainless steel-and everywhere a magic glow of light from the sun.