Wednesday, March 19, 2014

An X for Kimbell's Piano? Look Again

Can you guess what this building is? 
A military bunker?  An old K-mart?  A really low-budget municipal library?
A designer museum by a world-famous architect?

She struck a pose against the glass cabinet.

"Consider it matter of perspective," she encouraged me.

I was in the gift shop of Fort Worth's acclaimed Kimbell Art Museum, near the entrance doors of its venerable Louis Kahn building, where I had just arrived after touring a brand-new building on the museum's grounds.  Compared with what I'd just left, the original Kahn building seemed like a faithful friend.

"You have to look over at this Kahn building from inside the Renzo Piano pavilion," the curly-haired docent in the gift shop advised, using the names of each building's architect to differentiate them.  "Don't try to appreciate the Piano building from over here, in this masterpiece."

Talk about putting things into perspective. 

I had finally plucked up the courage to make my first visit to the controversial new gallery space designed by celebrated Italian architect Renzo Piano.  It had been constructed on a broad, grassy lawn that used to lie just to the west of the Kimbell's first building, designed in the 1970's by the late Louis Kahn.  And while I've grown to thoroughly enjoy Kahn's building, I'd seen enough pictures of this new structure in the local media to know it was really going to have to impress me for me to like it in person.

And sure enough, it didn't, and I don't.

I can't decide the least unflattering comparison to make with the Piano building.  A military bunker?  An old K-mart?  A really low-budget municipal library?

If you can call $135 million "low-budget," that is.  That's the amount paid by patrons of the Kimbell for what's basically expansion space.  As the Kimbell's diverse and well-regarded collection has grown over the years, the original Kahn building couldn't hold it all.  Besides, the Kimbell has won the rights to host some elite international exhibitions, which also need more room.  Initial ideas for expanding the treasured Kahn building were quickly shot down by the world's architectural community.  So an annex of sorts was commissioned, with directors of the Kimbell specifically pursuing Piano, since he's one of the most prominent architects practicing today.  Yet as Piano's proposal filtered through its design process, the customary superlatives for what was being planned became muted.  The New York Times diplomatically focused on Piano's environmental features for his project, while local critics presumed anything by Piano had to be good.

Meanwhile, regular readers of mine know that "I don't do new well," so I didn't really expect to like it.  Yet I was still surprised by how unsatisfying a design it really is.

Not that I'm an expert, of course.  But considering the bar that had been set by the precise lines of Kahn's masterpiece, his clever use of light, and the richness of his materials, I didn't think Piano, whose career has crested far higher than Kahn's ever did, would so confidently wallow in mediocrity.  The entrance hall he gave his pavilion looks like a high school gymnasium without the bleachers.  The wood floor creaks annoyingly, even though it's brand new.  The lighting - from both an overabundance of tall windows and expensive-looking spotlights - was garish on this ordinary spring day in Texas.  And Piano's gallery space?  Perfunctory and adequate, if not a bit dark in the corners, with ceilings that seem almost too low.

There's absolutely nothing in the Kimbell's new building that indicates they paid a premium for a rock star architect from Italy.  Apparently, there are some glass louvers around its roofline that Piano says will refract some sunlight, but with environmental technology being so sophisticated in far more mundane applications these days, Piano's louvers - again - seem merely adequate.

And to top it all off, there's a meager, narrow, concrete and wood sidewalk connecting the two buildings.  Two buildings that happen to each be worth tens of millions of dollars in their own right, and containing priceless art.  Talk about pedestrian!  Walking between the Kimbell and Piano buildings, I felt like a high-schooler trekking between the main schoolhouse and, well, an annex.

This is world-class design?  I didn't contribute any money to the construction of the Piano pavilion, I don't know anybody who works there, I'm not a member of the Kimbell's association of patrons, and I don't even live in Fort Worth.  But I was actually embarrassed for the folks who did, and do.

So when the docent in the gift shop quietly sighed - as though she'd heard complaints similar to mine quite often from other visitors - and leaned against her glass display case, in a gesture of "here we go again," I wasn't surprised that she had a ready answer for me.  But what she said did surprise me.

Without outright admitting that the Piano pavilion was underwhelming and, frankly, one of Piano's less stellar designs, she framed the quandary not from the perspective of the Piano pavilion's deficiencies, but from the Kahn building's strengths.

"I was at an evening function in the Piano pavilion's basement right after it opened," she recalled, "and there's a glass elevator that faces this Kahn building.  When you come up from below ground, at dusk, and you see the Kahn's facade fall in front of you through the ascending glass elevator, with the special lighting, and the setting sun from the west hitting it, it's simply beautiful."

Okay, so, are folks at the Kimbell satisfied with spending $135 million for a glorified storage annex, while their original building continues to receive the accolades?  That's not what the docent said, but perhaps even Piano himself had that perspective in mind.  "The positioning of the [Piano] pavilion on the site focuses attention on the west facade of the Kahn Building," purrs a description on the Kimbell's website of the intended interplay between the two buildings.

Which, if that's the case, makes my perspective, for what it's worth, that much more amenable.  Granted, in terms of the grand scheme of life today, it's not Russia invading Ukraine, or relatives fretting over loved ones missing on a Malaysian jetliner, or even the March Madness about to be unleashed on the basketball world.  But the Kimbell's Kahn building has been my favorite public architecture in all of North Texas for years.  And if the Kimbell's own directors, not to mention one of their gracious docents, don't mind if I completely ignore their Piano annex, then I won't either.  Since I will.

It's a matter of perspective, after all.

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