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Renzo Piano and the New Kimbell Annex

by Jerome Weeks 27 May 2010 7:58 AM

The Italian architect has now designed three of Texas’ leading art museums: the Nasher in Dallas, the Menil in Houston and the Kimbell expansion in Fort Worth. All three, he says, are a legacy of his work with his ‘master’ — original Kimbell architect Louis Kahn.


The Kimbell Art Museum announced plans for a new addition in 2008. Now architect Renzo Piano has unveiled his final designs. KERA’s Jerome Weeks says Piano has a history with the Kimbell – and with Texas.

  • KERA radio story:

  • The Dallas Morning News story
  • The New York Times review
  • Chicago Tribune blog
  • The dfw.com story
  • Expanded online story:

Renzo Piano’s firm, the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, has designed the Osaka airport in Japan and the London Bridge Tower (“the Shard”), which will be one of the tallest skyscrapers in Europe when it’s completed. But ever since 1977 when his Pompidou Center opened in Paris and stunned the design world, Piano has been known for his museums. The New York Review of Books has even called the 72-year-old Italian “the most sought-after specialist in the defining architectural category of our time.”

Besides, as Piano says –

PIANO: “For some funny reason, Texas is a country where they love museum.”

Piano pointing out features to journalists on site

Piano has designed homes for three of the state’s leading art collections: the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, the Menil Collection in Houston and now the Kimbell in Fort Worth. The new building is budgeted at $125 million for around 85,000 square feet. That’s smaller than the current building’s 120,000 square feet (it’s also costlier than the $70 million originally cited for the annex in 2008). Much of the new addition’s space will be taken up by an underground parking garage. This means Piano’s annex in the open parkland to the west of the Kimbell will be relatively modest, much of it hidden below ground — possibly satisfying those Fort Worth residents who’ve objected to the loss of green space.

PIANO: [sounds of rustling maps and blueprints] “We are not adding volume to the Kimbell to become a big museum. We are just working on the complementary things that are missing. We are missing some educational space. We are missing a library, a reading room and, of course, we are missing space to show art.”

The Kimbell is considered the last masterpiece by architect Louis Kahn. Of course, it does have space to show art. But the current building is half the size that Kahn originally intended. So when the Kimbell hosts a major touring show, its permanent collection must go into storage. A plan in 1989 to extend the Kimbell by duplicating it on either end was scrapped after a public outcry. Piano’s design is the latest solution.

The Kimbell Annex. The top half, including the new auditorium (center), will be underground. The bottom half, including the central lobby, faces Louis Kahn’s building across open space that includes a reflecting pond. The two halves are separated by an enclosed ‘hall’ of greenery.

In addition to designing museums themselves, Piano has made an art of designing extensions or new wings for them — generally without marring the original building and often improving it. His ‘museum addition’ projects include the High Museum extension in Atlanta, the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago, the re-do of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the expansion of the Morgan Library in New York.

The rear half of Piano’s Kimbell annex includes a 290-seat performance hall that is buried underground, leaving more open grass space. The new auditorium will be larger and more suitable to musical performances than the current one in the Kahn building. The front half of the annex will be aboveground. It’ll be a low-slung, concrete-and-glass building in three sections, with the center one the lobby. The front half will also have a roof that Piano calls an energy-saving machine. It will let in sunlight while also generating solar electricity. Piano extolled both the moral and aesthetic values of sustainable buildings — his annex should ultimately use only one-fourth of the energy of the Kahn building.

PIANO: “In Texas that is the kingdom of oil, we can prove you can make a building that doesn’t throw oil out of the window.”

To anyone familiar with Piano’s other museums, the facade and the general floorplan of the Kimbell annex recall both Piano’s Nasher and Menil designs. The architect says the inspiration of Kahn’s original building runs through all of his Texas museums. The airy galleries, the sense of scale, the use of concrete and reflected or filtered natural sunlight. (One detail that stands out as different from the earlier buildings: The Kimbell will have visible, large-size wooden roof beams spanning it.)

Houston’s Menil Collection

In fact, the young Renzo Piano worked as an intern for Kahn in Kahn’s Philadelphia office when the older architect designed the Kimbell in the late ‘60s.

PIANO: “Kahn has been one of my master. Not in style but in sense of determination. He was probably the most stubborn man I met in my life. He was a kind of incredible person. In Philadelphia on the fifth floor, he used to fall asleep on the table. And I was finding him the next morning like that.”

Piano may be proudest of the fact that visitors to the Kimbell will no longer enter it through what is essentially the loading dock on its backside. Now they will drive into the underground garage and come up not into the annex but at its front in the open space between the two buildings, where a water feature will be located. This way, they’ll approach Kahn’s building the way it was intended.

PIANO: “I like the idea that the first thing you see when you go up from the garage is – Kahn. I like that kind of little hommage … to the master.”

The floorplan of the annex is currently staked out on the lawn in front of the Kimbell — with red flags and spray paint.

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  • I have to say that I have such an a love of the lawn in front of the Kimbell. I will be sorry to see some of it go.

    Are there any other drawing elevations you can share?

  • Lori Leonard

    I am so pleased to hear that Mr. Piano is incorporating solar energy in his design plan. After recently learning that Texas is the leader of wind energy production maybe we can accept that all energy sources have their place in our society.

  • Jerome Weeks


    The Kimbell’s website has a quick tour of the available renderings, cross-sections and site plans. https://www.kimbellart.org/MuseumInfo/Architecture/Tour-Piano.aspx