“When you have all the answers about a building before you start building it, your answers are not true. The building gives you answers as it grows and becomes itself.”
Those words by Louis Kahn speak to the common drive that all buildings should seek to emulate, that is, to embody an essential idea and elevate it to the sublime. My formative experience with architecture in this form was in the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. Designed and constructed by Kahn from 1966 to 1972, this building so perfectly exemplifies this concept that it retains its power to inspire decades after its completion.
The building is placed centrally in a triangular park that hosts a collection of other museums, at once removed from yet integrated with its surroundings. Built into a gently sloping hill that partially obscures its basement level, the main gallery level is accessed from a generously landscaped courtyard that draws its visitors inside. The building fully embraces its horizontality in its basic form with a series of six transverse cycloid vaults and intervening flat-roofed passages. This rhythmic repetition evokes Classical forms of Roman architecture, yet the low height of the vaults, meant to bring light closer to the artwork within, endows it with a human scale.
The simplicity of the building’s form is further reinforced by its limited palate of materials, offering a visual guide to its construction and function. The thin-shell post-tensioned concrete of the cycloid vaults are solely supported by the concrete columns at each corner, permitting flexibility of programming within the building. Freed from the requirements of load-bearing, the enclosing walls of travertine provide a visible contrast, further expounded by the thin lunette windows separating the end wall from the vault. The leaden roof cladding hearkens back to similar roofs in Venice whilst providing protection from Texas’ harsh climate while copious use of oak and burnished metal inside warmly contrasts with the stone and concrete.
It is in the interior galleries, however, where this building achieves its mastery. Kahn sought to illuminate the galleries with natural light from the Texas sky while protecting the artwork from direct sunlight, and his solution was nothing short of genius. A specially designed anodized aluminum reflector, positioned below skylights at the peak of the vaults, washes the vault interior in an even natural light, transforming the otherwise gray concrete into a reflective and silvery surface. The natural quality of this light varies with the time of day and the changing weather and seasons and lends an ever-changing personality to the artwork within.
The Kimbell Art Museum, in its essential simplicity and beauty, inspired me onto the path of architecture.