Kahn, Ando, Johnson in Fort Worth

After coming back from my European Study Abroad trip in 2010, I got the chance to visit the Dallas/Fort Worth area. I had to sneak away from the girl I was dating at the time, her kids, and her mother to see some architecture. I don’t regret that decision. What did I get to see? A Kahn masterpiece, a good Ando building, and what is probably Philip Johnson’s best work (I’m not talking about the Amon Carter Museum). First up: Kahn’s Kimbell Museum, because it is pretty amazing.

Louis Kahn – Kimbell Art Museum

Materiality, modulating light, and service/served spaces clearly articulated. What is not to love outside of the main entrance not being clear? Kahn always seemed to have a problem with that. The building more than makes up for it. The building itself is a very clear parti – 6 programmed arched ceiling bars separated by 5 horizontal bars containing service spaces and equipment. In a way it is kind of metabolist in that one could see this motif expanded forever as the museum needed to do so (of course, they added a new pavilion by Renzo Piano later on).

The materiality both inside and out is wonderful, yet so incredibly simple. It’s all about the detail of the stone, concrete, and wood here. Natural variations in the stone give a texture to the otherwise stoic facade. Concrete is very clearly articulated as structure. I’m a sucker for well crafted concrete.

The same materials found outside find their way into the interior and still serving the same purposes. The addition of wood flooring helps to warm up the material palette and the introduction of skylights with light scoops modulates the light and brings the concrete to a silver, glimmering finish. This light allows the concrete in the vaults to differentiate itself from the columns serving to support it. It gives a light quality to the spaces that take the building from good to great. As you traverse the museum you cross service and served bars, the differentiation in ceiling heights providing a good cadence as you explore art.

Overall quite a wonderful building and I even went back a second time (bringing others along) before heading back to Louisiana. One of Kahn’s best.

Fort Worth Museum of Modern Art – Tadao Ando

If I may make a suggestion, visit the Museum of Modern Art before you go to the Kimbell, because while both Ando and Kahn were interested in light – Kahn did it better. That is not to say that the FW Museum of Modern Art is a bad building, far from it. In many ways it was inspired by the Kimbell. Bars of gallery spaces separated by service spaces, entering from the side of the building, similar materiality.

Concrete makes its return as structure with Ando’s building – stone infill being replaced by curtain wall glazing. There is a similar massing strategy in the bars of program but it is much more delineated here and even forces you onto a designated sequence versus the relatively free-flowing nature of browsing the Kimbell. Ando’s building even features water elements like the Kimbell. This was very much Ando’s response to Kahn.

In fact, the interior spaces are quite similar to the Kimbell, but much darker. Wood gives way to stone in areas. In others wood remains, but the typical white walls of a museum make their presence known. Instead of allowing natural light to seep in and diffuse on a concrete vault, light comes in from selected skylights (not running the length of each vaulted area) and is diffused into the entire ceiling plane. Sometimes the vault goes flat. Not as effective as the Kimbell or even some of Renzo Piano’s super complex light modulating roofs.

As mentioned previously, Ando’s building is much more prescriptive in the path you navigate through the museum. As you meander through the vaults, you come to the end to make your way down to the first floor. The prize/relief at the end of the floor? Huge disappointment. This stair could have been so much more. While it is a break in the galleries to combat museum fatigue, the stair itself is way too narrow to adequately serve as the relief. It should be 15 feet wider and accommodate resting areas and places to contemplate what you’ve seen while overlooking the reflecting pond.

Fort Worth Water Gardens – Philip Johnson/John Burgee

Famous for saying “I’m a whore”, no doubt referring to some of his corporate headquarters commissions in the 70s and 80s, Johnson shows a different side of himself with the Water Gardens. One that cares about civic engagement and giving back to a city, at least in my opinion. The Water Gardens are delightfully brutalist, full of the fun exposed aggregate concrete (for some reason I have a bit of a soft spot for it even though everyone hates it), and water. In my opinion, it’s Johnson’s best work.

The layering and topography is quite wonderful. You can get lost in this space and enjoy being away from the city for a bit. Plus the giant water feature you can climb into using dangerous steps – awesome. Even the way the concrete has weathered is very nice. Rust and algae combine to create a super interesting patina.

I’m going to design a building that patinas concrete in this manner one day. I hope they never clean it off.

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Josh Mings

Architect and painter. Columbus, IN born, New Orleans educated, Chicago living and trying to leave the world better than I found it.