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Seeming Inevitability: Reconsidering Renzo Piano’s Addition To Louis Kahn’s Kimbell

South view. Image © Robert LaPrelle
South view. Image © Robert LaPrelle

When Renzo Piano’s addition to the Kimbell opened in late 2013, critical responses ranged from “both architects at the top of their games” (Witold Rybczynski) to “generous to a fault” (Mark Lamster) to “distant defacement” (Thomas de Monchaux). In this excerpt from a special issue of Cite: The Architecture + Design Review of Houston, Ronnie Self gives a deeply considered assessment of the two buildings after a full turn of the seasons. The special issue also includes a review by Christopher Hawthorne of Johnston Marklee's plans for the Menil Drawing Institute, a review by David Heymann of Steven Holl’s expansion of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and an essay by Walter Hood and Carmen Taylor about Project Row Houses. Also featured are interviews of the directors of all four museums and their architects (Piano, Holl, Johnston Marklee, David Chipperfield, and Rice Building Workshop), making for a very comprehensive issue.

Piano’s main task was to respond appropriately to Kahn’s building which he achieved through alignments in plan and elevation and by dividing his project into two major bodies: a concrete walled, glass roofed pavilion facing Kahn and a separate, sod-roofed structure behind that should integrate a significant portion of the project with the landscape and thereby lessen its overall impact. Still, the loss of the open lawn that existed in front of the Kimbell where Piano’s building now stands is regrettable. Kahn’s Kimbell was conceived as a large house or a villa in a park, and unlike much of the abundant open and green space in the Fort Worth Cultural District, that park was actually used. Piano’s new outdoor space is more like a courtyard – more contained and more formal. It is more urban in its design, yet less public in its use.

Aside from lamenting the loss of the open lawn, how might we judge the addition?

View of the double staircase leading to the lower level. Image © Robert Polidori View from the southwest. Image © Robert LaPrelle Lobby view, looking south. Image © Nic Lehoux Detail of roof and beam system. Image © Robert LaPrelle

VIDEO: Renzo Piano Pavilion at Kimbell Art Museum

Arbuckle Industries, the producers behind the highly lauded documentary Archiculture, has shared with us a small teaser revealing Renzo Piano’s recently opened expansion at the Kimbell Art Center. Situated just 65 yards from Louis I. Kahn’s “signature cycloid-vaulted museum of 1972,” the single-story, colonnaded pavilion “stands as an expression of simplicity and lightness.”

Piano Takes on Kahn at Kimbell Museum Expansion

For architects, Louis Kahn's Kimbell Museum has long been hallowed ground. For Renzo Piano, who designed the museum's first major expansion, it was also an enormous difficulty to overcome. His addition to the museum could be neither too close to Kahn's building, nor too far. It had to solve a parking problem, yet respect Kahn's distaste for cars. It had to respond to Kahn's stately progression of spaces—and that silvery natural light that make architects' knees go wobbly. And yet it could not merely borrow from Kahn's revolutionary bag of tricks. 

Museum Round Up: The Box is Back

Clyfford Still Museum. Image ©  Jeremy Bittermann
Clyfford Still Museum. Image © Jeremy Bittermann

In a recent article for the Denver Post, Ray Rinaldi discusses how the box is making a comeback in U.S. museum design. Stating how architecture in the 2000’s was a lot about swoops, curves, and flying birds - see Frank Gehry and Santiago Calatrava - he points out the cool cubes of David Chipperfield and Renzo Piano. We've rounded up some of these boxy works just for you: the Clyfford Still Museum, the Kimbell Art Museum Expansion, The St. Louis Art Museum's East Building, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien's Barnes Foundation, and Shigeru Ban's Aspen Art Museum. Each project begins to show how boxes can be strong, secure, and even sly. Check out more about the article here