Monday, June 8, 2009

The Kimbell Art Museum: My Architectural Photos

The Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas was designed by Louis Kahn, one of the more prolific and celebrated architects of the 20th century. Despite having made repeated trips to see exhibits at the Kimbell for over 20 years now, and spending years hanging out in the western courtyard with others, I had never before even considered the actual structure of the Kimbell before. Kahn's uses of parti and framing are so masterful that the eye itself is never drawn to the structure itself, rather, it is drawn to what is within and around it. It was not until I hit #74 in Matthew Frederick's 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School that I had even been exposed to the concept that it was a great architectural work. It would be like visiting the Sistine Chapel for years and never having actually looked up.

I immediately headed to the Great Buildings web page about the Kimbell and saw that, indeed, it really was impressive. More impressive even than some of the exhibits I'd seen displayed within it. I could not believe that I had never even noticed even the slightest detail of the building before. But looking at photos of a building is never as good as having gone there oneself, so I packed up the family and we drove to Fort Worth to get some good architectural photos. Note that these images aren't the standard photos of the Kimbell, but rather the aspects unique to its architectural components.

These photos are all my own personal work (except the one of me, my wife too that), and all rights are reserved. I have no problem with anyone using these photos for non-profit purposes (such as a school project) provided I am given credit for them. If, for some reason anyone has a commercial request for the photos, please contact me about rights and a higher quality resolution photo, as these have had the quality of the image scaled down for faster load times.

Flash photography is not allowed at the Kimbell, and with a digital camera, getting any good quality photos in the dark downstairs area was not possible. However, on the second floor, as I began to look for architectural qualities, what immediately struck me was how everything framed something else. This photo is of the main central hall on the second floor, from this view, the ticket counter is on the left, the gift shop is on the right, and the northern courtyard is straight ahead. Note how the arch and opening frame the view of the northern gallery, which in turn frames the view of the courtyard, which itself frames the bronze statue L'Air by Aristide Maillol. The entire museum is like this. Every angle frames something else. It is no wonder I never noticed how great a work the Kimbell itself is, because one must literally force the eyes too look somewhere besides where Kahn wants you to look, and Kahn always wants you looking somewhere besides the building.

The Kimbell features two main stairwells placed opposite one another. A few interesting points are that once again we see how the building frames everything besides itself in that the stairway frames the next stairway as well as those ascending and descending it. The travertine tile used throughout the interior reflects the light in a soft, gentle way, and the pockets and imperfections throughout each tile of the stone relieve the eyes of their need to find order. The eyes quite literally slide right off the walls and to whatever they outline. Also of note is the arch-vaulted ceilings. Anywhere two "sections" of the Kimbell can be seen at the same time, one will find a sort of almost-symmetry that utilizes the same elements over and over to reinforce the whole idea. I believe this is part one of Kahn's parti for the Kimbell. Finally, note the wood-paneled wall along the gift shop area on the right. We will revisit that in a moment.

Here Kahn's ideas of served-space and servant-space are well executed by the simplicity of materials. Served-spaces for gallery, gathering, dining, sales, etc, are all surrounded by the gentle unassuming travertine tile, making the contents and people more important than the walls themselves. In turn, the servant-space used for air conditioning, electric, plumbing, etc, is enclosed by plain gray concrete, and brushed steel or aluminum fixtures. The leisurely eye finds nothing of interest in the servant spaces, drifts towards the served-spaces, and is immediately drawn to whatever else exists within the served-space. Further, while at first glance the Kimbell seems divided by the vault in its entirety, after enough looking around I got the impression that the museum itself was more about the half-arch, half-vault, than the whole. Repeated evidence for this can be found throughout, but most notably in the curved half-arches that obfuscate the indirect-lighting system, and the fact that the majority of the exhibits will exist along opposite long-walls of the arch, but one generally only sees one wall at a time. This half-arch vault sectioning also seems in context with the almost-symmetry idea. I believe this is part two of Kahn's parti for the Kimbell.

The panelling along the gift-shop wall is actually storage space. Again, the choice of materials is gentle and unassuming. The very grain and cut of the wood is such that the eye finds it pleasing, but otherwise uninteresting. At the same time, the wood gently diffuses and reflects the harsh afternoon light coming in from the opposite (western) courtyard. It also helps to break the monotony of the travertine tile with yet another form of monotony. Here we see once more how servant-space is unobtrusive, useful, and completely dismissed by the eye unless one is actively looking for it.

Photography was not allowed in the Southern Gallery due to the active exhibit going on. They were, however, kind enough to let me photograph the southern inner-courtyard, which quickly I discovered when my not-quite-two-year-old son decided to start yelling. I'd never even realized the courtyard was there, as before I'd not had a child at all or he wasn't with me. The placement directly in the middle of the Southern Gallery space is subtle, unassuming, and easily accessed. Inside its confines is a relaxing, intimate area where one may sit and relax in contemplation, or alternately, to let your child run some of that energy off around the fountain. A couple of benches are provided, shaded by the trees overhead. And speaking of which:

Again, we see an example of how well Kahn executes servant-space. even outside. The electrical components are run along the same simple, unadorned rails through the top, allowing in sunlight. Cross-wires are provided to allow the branches of the trees to provide the most shade and spread out at rest without poking down into people's faces. Harder still to see, a simple wire mesh follows the arch along the top to prevent anything larger than a sparrow from getting in.

The cafe in the northern half of the Kimbell is what first triggered my thoughts on the half-arch, not the full-arch, being the real parti of sections. The eastern wall of the cafe is an exhibit. The northern wall, again, unimportant servant space the eyes slides off of, the western wall of the cafe overlooks the beautiful northern courtyard.

Where to begin with the northern courtyard? It is an incredible contrast of curves and lines, centrally symbolized by the curvaceous L'Air sitting upon a severe stone-block. The bending, arching trees, in turn, counterbalance the window panes. The open-air roof is again diffused by an even finer mesh that keeps out anything larger than a fly and diffuses the harsh Texas sun, even in the heat of summer. The placement of the sculpture, the trees, the bushes, and tables each provide a separation of space that is easy to navigate and semi-private, and the gentle silence and serenity is a welcome contrast to the hubbub of the main hall.

I was fortunate enough to catch the Kimbell on a day when they had already moved the previous exhibits out of the North Gallery, and had not yet set up their next upcoming exhibit. To the right is the northern courtyard. Later this served-space will be filled with paintings, sculptures, and other works of art, and photography will be disallowed. Note the floor is of the same wood grain and color as the gift-shop wall. This ever-present sense of uniformity and variation exists in every room. This should also give some idea of the importance of natural light to the Kimbell. While there are certainly spotlights and additional lighting where needed, much of the light is naturally reflected from the outside and diffused. This provides warm and even tones throughout every hall.

The space between the western courtyard and the western entrance feels like stepping from one world into another. The shading is expertly performed, as even at 4pm in the afternoon, on the western side of the building, the shade under the arched patio is dark and cool. Here, Kahn seems to play up the harsh lines and segmented rectangles as one approaches the museum, and the further one gets from the museum entrance, the less lined, less segmented, brighter, and more natural the environment becomes. The effect is quite literally night and day. Also, unable to be seen, but hopefully implied, is the second arch on the left, now obscured by the trees, creating that same sense of almost-symmetry that permeates the entire structure.

Once one steps into the treeline of the western courtyard there is no longer even paved concrete tiles to walk upon, but instead a layer of river-pebbles that give off a satisfying crunch as they are walked upon. In lieu of the traditional columns, Kahn has used trees, which provide the same separation of space, shade, and introduction to the structure. Unlike columns, however, the trees provide open air and a sense of a gradual return to nature. The river pebbles also provide an introduction to the waterworks that surround the western patio.

The western patio defines and separates space without confining it. The alternating placement of benches, far from one another allows for different clusters of people to talk privately amongst themselves while enjoying a great view on every side. The constant, but not overpowering sound of the falling water is sufficient white noise to dampen conversations that one is not a part of. The lawn is surrounded by trees in such a way that the surrounding buildings are either completely obscured or only hinted at. A bustling center of interior of downtown Fort Worth is thus transformed into a tranquil, open, intimate setting.

Last, and certainly not least, one of the most modern and least appreciated needs for any structure is that of parking for the employees. Parking is almost always a last-minute consideration, at least in the DFW Metroplex, when it should be something integrated into the very plan of the building. All too-often the beauty and elegance of a building is diminished by endless stretches of cracked, broken blacktop, or dwarfed by a ugly multi-level parking garage. Instead, here is a hidden alcove, easily accessible, yet hidden from view by the casual passerby. Unless one were specifically looking for it, it is never seen.

In conclusion, I am left feeling slightly ashamed for never before having appreciated this fine example of Kahn's work. At the same time, I get the distinct impression that Kahn would have preferred it that way. He seems to have applied the same general principles that the best CGI artists have: if you watch a movie and say "that's some great CGI work," then they have not done their job well. If you watch a movie and a CGI scene happens, and you never once realize it was computer animation, then they have mastered their craft. The Kimbell Art Museum is in much the same vein. The construction of the Kimbell is centered around focusing appreciation of what is outside the building and inside the building, but never the building itself. It is this selfless sort of architecture that makes the Kimbell such a great forum for great works of art. Thank you, Louis Kahn, for your gift.

1 comment:

  1. Greetings...

    The Freedom In Creation Tour is a unique concert and art exhibition experience to benefit the work of Freedom In Creation in Northern Uganda. Visiting six cities from June 12 to June 18, our goal is to raise $10,000 for Freedom In Creation's weekly art sessions and fresh water well projects in the Koro Abili IDP camp community.


My Shelfari Bookshelf

Shelfari: Book reviews on your book blog