Art and Architecture Collide at Fort Worth’s Kimbell Museum of Art

The Kimbell Art Museum’s new Renzo Piano Pavilion, left, stands across from the iconic Kahn original

The Kimbell Art Museum’s new Renzo Piano Pavilion, left, stands across from the iconic Kahn original

What does one of the United States’ most recognized art museums housed in an architectural masterpiece do when it needs more space? It brings in a world-renowned architect to design an addition large enough to house special exhibits and give the museum’s permanent collection a true home. That new space also introduces a state-of-the-art auditorium and lecture space, rooftop lawn, and what is sure to become an architectural match for its well-known companion building.

The Kimbell Museum of Art in Fort Worth, Texas, opens a new pavilion this month designed by world-renowned architect Renzo Piano. The $135 million expansion project adds 101,130 square feet to the museum, nearly tripling the gallery space of the Kimbell in the heart of Fort Worth’s Cultural District. What was already recognized as a world-class arts showcase thanks to the original Louis Kahn-designed building is sure to be elevated to another level, if that’s even possible.

The original Louis Kahn signature cycloid-vaulted museum opened in 1972

Since opening in 1972, the Kimbell has become one of the nation’s most important art museums for the building’s architecture as well as the strong permanent collection and ever-changing exhibits. The permanent collection’s European works include paintings by Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Poussin, Rembrandt, and Boucher and sculpture by Donatello, Bernini, and Houdon. The collection of 19th- and 20th-century European art includes paintings and sculpture by David, Delacroix, Turner, Manet, Monet, Cezanne, Picasso, and Matisse. There is also a strong collection of Precolumbian, African, and Asian art.

Carvaggio’s "The Cardsharps" hangs in the Piano Pavilion’s south gallery, displayed on the gallery’s unique light-gray concrete walls

The museum’s collection is small in numbers; there are about 350 works from Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania, and the ancient Americas. But there is a real focus on acquiring and retaining works of “definitive excellence” no matter the medium, period, or school of origin. The museum also has Michelangelo’s first known painting, “Torment of Saint Anthony,” believed to have been executed when he was 12 or 13.

The museum has shown world-class exhibits ranging from a collection of Soviet Impressionist paintings—the first time the works had been shown outside the USSR at the time—to separate exhibits of works from Matisse, Monet, and Cezanne to the most recent “The Age of Picasso and Matisse: Modern Masters From the Art Institute of Chicago,” on display through February 16.

"The Age of Picasso and Matisse: Modern Masters From the Art Institute of Chicago" is on display in the Kahn Pavilion through February 16

The new Piano Pavilion, set to open November 27, will serve as a home for parts of the permanent collection as well as special exhibits. Its opening will pave the way for more of the museum’s collection, particularly the European works, to stay on view in the Kahn Pavilion. The European collection remains on view in the Piano Pavilion’s south gallery until mid-January before it is moved to the permanent galleries at the Louis Kahn Building. The Piano Pavilion’s west gallery will highlight the Asian art collection, and the north gallery will showcase the Precolumbian and African art.

I was given a tour of the new Piano Pavilion a few weeks before its opening by Jessica Brandrup, head of marketing and public relations for the Kimbell, and Alex Hammerschlag, project manager with Paratus Group, the New York firm managing the project.

Brandrup talked about how the museum was built with the mission to showcase art in natural light. Since then, she said, it has become an inspiration to architects around the world to bring natural light into art spaces. That focus on showing art in natural light continues in the Piano Pavilion.

The Piano Pavilion sits just across a grassy expanse to the west of the Kahn Pavilion. When museumgoers walk up to ground level from the new underground parking garage, the beautiful Kahn Pavilion will greet them in the east.

The Piano Pavilion’s roof, just above the entrance

One unique design feature in the Piano Pavilion is the use of concrete. The Kimbell is not a contemporary art museum. So it might at first glance seem odd to see European masterpieces displayed on gray concrete walls, something more common in contemporary art museums. But as Brandrup pointed out, the museum wanted the lightest material to show the art. “The walls are classic but very modern,” she said.

The Piano Pavilion’s south gallery opens with European art from the museum’s permanent collection hanging on the gray concrete walls

“This was one of the challenges, was seeing art on concrete,” Hammerschlag said. “It’s tough engineering. The concrete has a marble-like structure.”

In all, the new Pavilion has 80 walls. It took 160 pours to make those walls, with each pour taking two days.

And back to the importance of the art being showcased in natural light: The new Piano Pavilion has a unique ceiling fabric that makes it almost impossible to detect where the light in the room is coming from. Hammerschlag called it the perfect fabric for the space, and considering I didn’t see bright artificial lights shining on the art, I’d probably agree with his assessment.

The museum’s roof system integrates 29 pairs of Douglas-fir roof beams as the support system for aluminum louvers and solar cells, mounted above fritted glass and silk-like scrims

Another way the space’s design benefits the art is how air is pumped in during the hot Texas summers. Instead of ventilation grills in the floors, the entire floor is a ventilation system, which greatly minimizes the amount of airflow so the air doesn’t affect the art.

The Harihara sculpture in the Asian Art collection sits on display in the Piano Pavilion

The new Piano Pavilion would be the architectural envy of any museum in the world. But paired with the original Kahn Pavilion, it gives the Kimbell and Fort Worth an unrivaled art showcase. Put it at the center of an arts neighborhood like the Fort Worth Cultural District, and this Texas city is an arts destination in its own right. Other highlights of the district include the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, the Fort Worth Botanic Garden and Japanese Garden, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, numerous outdoor sculptures, and other museums. And the best part is the museums are all within walking distance, making for a full day of arts and culture in Cow Town.