Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum readies its first major expansion. But the ‘best small museum in America’ intends to remain an intimate environment

M.M. ADJARIAN  | Contributing Writer

Kimbell Museum
Renzo Piano adds his architectural stamp to the Louis Kahn designed Kimbell Museum with the ‘iconic feature’ under a glass roof.

Kimbell Art Museum
3333 Camp Bowie Blvd., Fort Worth. Harwood St.
Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea
Aug. 29­Jan. 2. Tuesdays–Saturdays, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. (Fridays, noon–8 p.m.), Sundays, noon–5 p.m. $12. 817-332-8451.

The Kimbell has been called the best small museum in America. but it won’t be that small much longer. Next month, museum officials will break ground outside the west entrance of the main building to begin work on a new addition, set to open to the public in 2013.

It’s a big move for the Fort Worth institution, designed by acclaimed architect Louis Kahn. Characterized by clean, spare lines, its graceful vaulted ceilings are topped by narrow Plexiglas skylights that enhance natural illumination within the building. Changing it is a major step.

This masterpiece of modern museums permanently houses a collection known not only for high quality works from the third millennium B.C. to the mid-20th century, but for how they harmonize with the museum spaces.

Most recognizable among these works are some of the greatest names in European art: Michelangelo, Donatello, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Picasso, Mondrian and Matisse. The permanent collection also includes spectacular examples of classical Western (Assyrian, Greek and Roman) and non-Western (Asian, Pre-Columbian and African) art.

Kimbell Museum site plan
Kimbell Museum site plan

But there’s a problem. The Kimbell’s collection, painstakingly accumulated over nearly 40 years, now fills the museum to capacity. As a result, whenever a special exhibition is held, staff members are forced to take down artwork that ideally should be on continuous display.

“We’ve simply outgrown the Kahn building,” says museum director Eric Lee about the expansion project. “The new building will allow us to keep up almost our entire permanent collection and have special exhibitions at the same time.”

Italian architect Renzo Piano, who once interned at Louis Kahn’s firm, has designed the new addition, which will be comprised of two interconnected structures. The first, to be built of concrete and multiple layers of glass, has a tripartite façade that mirrors the three parts of the Kimbell main entrance façade.

Wooden beams — which Lee, quoting Piano, calls the “iconic feature” of this building — will run the length of the building and support a glass roof. Within this space, the museum will hold the special exhibitions that currently crowd out the pieces on permanent display in the main building.

The second structure will also be made of glass and concrete, but will be covered by a grassy roof. It will be accessible from the first building via two special corridors and have an education center that includes classrooms and a library. The centerpiece of this earthwork building will be an auditorium to augment the one currently in use. Where the old auditorium was only adequate for lectures, the new one will have acoustics that will make it the ideal venue for music that runs the gamut from instrumental to choral.

Lee is proud of this new addition, which will open up new possibilities in programming that could include not only the musical but the theatrical as well.

“We’re not ruling anything out,” he says. “All sorts of productions could be held there.”

Are you salivating yet, art lovers?

To get to the new addition, visitors will be able to take a glass elevator from an underground parking structure that will be built underneath the projected expansion. It will take them up to the front doors of the Piano gallery, which faces the main doors of the Kimbell. (Currently, museum patrons must park their cars behind the building and then find their way to the front entrance.)

Lee admits that the placement of the current parking lot is one of the few “mistakes” Kahn made in his overall design.

“He didn’t drive. He thought that people would park on the east side and then walk around to the front,” he says. “But no one does that except for architects.”

While the new structures are designed to recall the Kahn building’s elegant modernist style and bring renewed focus to its main entrance, they stand alone in their own right as representatives of a new era in building design. Both spaces are earth-friendly.

The roof of the new gallery building, for example, is fitted with photovoltaic cells to collect light from the sun and generate electricity. And the grass roof on the second building helps maximize energy efficiency.

That one of the two structures Piano designed actually merges into the earth is also significant for how it helps define the space outside the museum. With the roof of one building covered by grass, a more park-like feeling is maintained than would otherwise have been the case. The new addition is therefore not only green in terms of its relationship to the landscape, but also in terms of how it uses energy.

The Kimbell may be growing, what it may apparently lose in “small museum charm” it will gain back in spades for the new programming it will be able to offer and for the possibilities it will embody for a generation seeking architectural models of energy efficiency.

Lee acknowledges the museum will indeed be a much larger place. But he also insists that “it will continue to have a very intimate feeling” and an enhanced charm that walking from building to building will create. Either way, visitors can’t lose, having a world-class museum in our own backyard.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 27, 2010.