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Kahn Building, Kimbell Art Museum

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1972, Louis I. Kahn, with Preston M. Geren and Associates. 3333 Camp Bowie Blvd.

The Kimbell Art Foundation was established in 1936, with patrons Velma Fuller and Kay Kimbell bequeathing their estate, derived from Kay Kimbell’s milling and food distribution business, to establish a “museum of the first class.” The museum would contain the collection of European old master paintings that the couple had begun to acquire in the 1930s. The City of Fort Worth donated the site, which contained vestigial elements of the 1936 centennial landscaping. The foundation hired Richard Fargo Brown as the museum’s first director. Brown wrote the program for the museum building and hired Philadelphia architect Louis I. Kahn to design it. The rapport between Kahn and Brown, and Brown’s understanding of art and daylight, invigorated Kahn. The resultant museum is considered by many to be Kahn’s masterwork.

Reinforced concrete columns support a primary structure of post-tensioned concrete cycloid vaults, arranged in six rows, each row containing three vaults end-to-end to create a clear span of 100 feet. Nonbearing infill walls of concrete masonry units are sheathed in Italian travertine panels. A “counterpoint” of three internal courts plays against this structure, allowing daylight into the museum as well as introducing spatial variation into the architectural composition.

Kahn’s love of ancient Greek and Roman ruins found its place in this building in the inspired reconciliation of the ancient and the modern, particularly his understanding of vaulted Roman storage structures. The stability and calm that are the museum’s outstanding characteristics derive from Kahn’s repeated use of the square as a compositional proportion in every built element. The 20-foot height by 20-foot width by 100-foot length of each cycloid-vaulted unit is a stable and classical proportion. The material palette, derived from Kahn’s work at the Salk Institute (1963) in La Jolla, California, consists of exposed, cast-in-place reinforced concrete with travertine infill, stainless steel panels, white oak millwork, slate and travertine flooring, clear glazing, and hand-fabricated lead-coated copper roofing.

Marshall Meyers, Kahn’s project architect, was instrumental in developing the suspended aluminum reflectors that temper natural light admitted through the linear skylights at the apex of the vaults. Kahn considered these to be new and original conceptions and termed them “natural-light fixtures” (see p. 18).

A grove of yaupon holly trees is recessed into the entrance, where two vaults are omitted and the west vaults-as-porticos engage the allée of trees remaining from the centennial landscaping. The allée becomes a kind of preface, a “green vault,” that ties the building and landscape into a singular, coherent experience. This is made more pastoral by the low fountains flanking the grove and by the gravel surface used in this shaded west entrance court.

Joan Miro’s bronze Woman Addressing the Public: Project for a Monument (1981) stands at the east entrance to the museum. At the south end of the museum Isamu Noguchi donated his Japanese basalt pieces Constellation (for Louis I. Kahn) (1983) for the sunken court that Kahn thought of as a “grass theater.” To the west of this court is Henry Moore’s Figure in a Shelter (1983).

The contributions of Kahn’s structural engineer, August E. Komendant, and of Thos. S. Byrne, Inc., the Fort Worth general contractor, cannot be underestimated. Byrne’s many inventions during the three years of construction included an ingenious folding wood formwork for the pouring of the vaults, an original segment of which can now be seen at the University of Texas at Arlington School of Architecture (AW3.1).

In 1989, the museum’s second director initiated an expansion plan, but after much public and professional dissension the museum abandoned the project. The Kimbell is one of the best small museums in the world for both its collection and building, a benchmark in the relationship of daylight to the exhibition of art.

Writing Credits

Gerald Moorhead et al.


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Gerald Moorhead et al., "Kahn Building, Kimbell Art Museum", [Fort Worth, Texas], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—,

Print Source

Buildings of Texas

Buildings of Texas: East, North Central, Panhandle and South Plains, and West, Gerald Moorhead and contributors. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2019, 215-216.

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