“Light was either born here or, imprisoned, reigns in freedom.”
— Abbot Suger inscription at Saint-Denis, circa 1144 A.D.
Louis I. Kahn was 65 and at the height of his capacities as an architect when he was hired on October 5, 1966, by the Kimbell Art Foundation to design a new museum with monies from the estate of Kay Kimbell, who had died in 1964, and on land provided by the city of Fort Worth. His selection was recommended by the inaugural director of the museum, Richard Fargo Brown, who had been hired in 1965 and who shared many of Kahn’s sensibilities with respect to the display of art. In particular, the two men prioritized the relationship between art and daylight and gave importance to the scale and intimacy of the desired encounter with the viewer.
Brown wrote the prescient “Pre-Architectural Program,” in which much of this is delineated, and there are moments when it is difficult to discern whether the author is Brown or Kahn. Private collections such as that of Henry Clay Frick were important precedents, and Kahn was apparently inspired in part by a visit to Henry van de Velde’s 1938 Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, which combined internal courts as light sources and respite and top-lit galleries within a more opaque exterior in a park setting.
The Kimbell Art Foundation was formed in 1936. Kay and his wife, Velma Kimbell, were in the milling and grain business and would later diversify into grocery and other ventures. Their early collection of artwork (18th-century British works, in particular) would be displayed in the Fort Worth Library and later in the Kimbell Foods offices on South Main. Kay’s will spoke simply to the creation of a space for art “in suitable surroundings,” and it fell to his widow and their niece, Kay Fortson, to begin to frame the idea — something neither had prior experience with. They toured and chose advisors carefully and placed great reliance on expertise.
By coincidence, the proposed 9.5-acre site was located across the street from the 1936 Will Rogers Memorial Center, an Art Deco-styled complex consisting of the central Pioneer Tower and two flanking buildings: Will Rogers Auditorium to the west and the larger Will Rogers Coliseum to the east. The landscaping, completed in 1937, included allées of cedar elms running north-south across the street (with tunneled walkways beneath West Lancaster Avenue) to connect with a parking area to the north. Hare & Hare designed the landscaping, and trees were procured from the Trinity River bottoms and planted by 400 young adults from the National Youth Administration. The structure of movement was axial and distinctly Beaux Arts in conception. Two streets — centered on the auditorium and coliseum facades — crossed West Lancaster to Camp Bowie Boulevard. The below-grade concrete walkways (no longer extant) aligned with the ticket booths to the complex. Will Rogers East — the street centered on the coliseum to the south — was removed by the city in order to provide a larger, contiguous whole. Importantly, the allées on either side were left in place.
At the time of Kahn’s engagement, the trees were almost 30 years established. Kahn’s architectural education in the late 1920s reflected the more formal Beaux Arts design vocabulary as well as the newer Modernist work and logic of Le Corbusier and others, so his understanding of such an arboreal armature on his slightly sloping site would have been clear. In fact, in every iteration of the design’s development, the trees remained enfolded with, or alongside, the structure.
Kahn’s contract called for a three-year project — 18 months for design and 18 months for construction — as the foundation hoped to open in 1969. Kahn’s intuitive “search,” as he defined his process, was not rigorous in a business sense, and groundbreaking occurred in June 1969 at the demand of the trustees and others, without a set of construction documents. (Technically, there never was a final, complete set.) The owner’s team (Kahn as architect, Preston M. Geren & Associates as associate architect, and Thos S. Byrne as general contractor), coupled with Kahn’s own consultants (Dr. August Komendant as structural consultant, Fred Langford as concrete consultant, Richard Kelly as lighting consultant, George Patton as landscape architect, and significant others), was a stunning alignment of talent and experience. Kahn’s project architect, Marshall Meyers; Preston M. Geren’s project coordinator, Frank Sherwood, Hon. TxA; Byrne’s vice president, Tom Seymour; project superintendent Virgil Earp; and vault superintendent L.G. “Buck” Shaw — along with others — contributed to the project in ways that supported Kahn’s vision and achieved something beyond rare. Project #1164, as it was designated in the Geren office, with working drawings hand-drawn by Geren project architect Dewayne Manning and site drawings by Terry Garrett, would become “suitable surroundings” indeed.
By February of 1968, critic Peter Plagens was already writing of Kahn’s second design scheme in Art Forum, and it was portrayed even in design phases as a rarified endeavor, full of potential. The conception of a linear aperture at the “zenith” of the vault, paired with a suspended reflector to bounce light upward onto the lower surface of the concrete shell while allowing some light to fall directly, was intrinsic in the first conceptual sections from Kahn. Although it was refined along the way — the original idea for the reflector was that it would be of a similar material as a camera mirror — it remained and is the signature “instrument” in the assembly, sans electricity.
Construction itself would ultimately take three years, doubling the original project timeframe. Director Brown was quite effective on Kahn’s behalf, finding ways to give the architect more time to think and asking the board for patience. Kahn frequently spoke of the time required for meaningful work. Geren and Byrne did their best to adhere to the actual construction agreements and schedule. Tensions arose, and at one point Dr. Komendant was placed in control of the project as the only party trusted by the others.
In this case, the result was one of the finest structures of the 20th century. Few remember that the final cost was $54 per square foot in 1972 or that it took six years to complete. They know a museum which, once the dust settled, has since been renowned around the world for its singularity and quality of experience. Ada Louise Huxtable, after her first visit to the museum, said: “The Kimbell Museum is even more beautiful than I expected.… It’s just one of those rare, wonderful buildings. It’s a superb architectural experience.… The Kimbell is a perfect example of the setting serving the art and the two reinforcing each other for a profound cultural enrichment that is extremely moving.”
The second director of the museum, Dr. Edmund “Ted” Pillsbury, created the position of curator of architecture for Dr. Patricia Cummings Loud, which she held until her retirement due to health issues. Ironically, Dr. Pillsbury would attempt to add onto the original Kahn building in 1988 by “extending” the vaults to the north and south — an idea which was abandoned amid controversy the next year.
In 1997, its first year of eligibility, the museum was unanimously awarded AIA 25-year awards at all three tiers — local, state, and national (sharing the TxA award with Frank Welch’s The Birthday, completed in 1966, in Sterling County). In total, Kahn received five 25-year awards at the national level before his death in March 1974.
October 4 will mark 50 years since the museum’s opening. Its reputation continues to be enhanced, and its many contributions to architecture, art, and museology are understood and appreciated around the world. In 2013, the Kimbell opened an addition designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop — a pavilion and below-grade structure sited on what had originally been open lawn west of the Kahn structure. It addresses the Kahn building by means of frontality, scale and proportion, material palette, and concern for daylight — if not by the same understanding of open space and its value to the entry sequence conceived by Kahn with Harriet Pattison as an “entrance of the trees.” In replacing the original allées above a new underground garage, Piano moved them east several feet towards the Kahn structure.
The layered roof assembly of the pavilion includes photovoltaic cells, louvers, insulated glazing, laterally braced pairs of glulam timbers, and scrims to achieve what the Kahn shells accomplish with no moving parts — a kind of fine Swiss chronometer with complications in juxtaposition with a sundial. The light captured is, nonetheless, lovely and sensuous, and higher interior walls allow larger works to be displayed more readily than in the Kahn building.
Four directors, 194 exhibitions (including three on Kahn himself), three roofs (two of lead with calcium, the current of lead-coated copper), one tornado touching down a few blocks away, and various ADA accommodations along the way, the original Kahn structure stands as a testament to the possibility of a kind of local manifestation of perfection, and it captures a rare form of light — numinous and alchemical — that suffuses the art in a way that almost no other such structure is able to do. It skillfully marries light and site in a form so refined as to be timeless.
This, combined with a collection that is of the highest quality (for example, it contains the only painting by Michelangelo in a collection in the Americas — his first, painted at the age of 12 to 13, and flanked at the moment by exquisite works by Duccio and Fra Angelico), confirms that the desires and aspirations of Kay Kimbell and those involved were achieved.
In an editorial in The New York Times in 1989, Esther Kahn, Louis’ widow, wrote: “Lou rarely spoke of his finished works, but he truly loved the Kimbell, for he felt he had created something that was perfect in itself.”
W. Mark Gunderson, AIA, is an architect in Fort Worth.