Kimbell Art Museum is one of the most exemplary works of Louis Kahn and the start of a new wave of modern architecture. Louis Kahn was a firm believer in the importance of natural light in a space and tried to integrate a play of light and shadows within the building, to enhance and exemplify the structure.
“The space of a building must be able to read a line of lighted spaces. Each space should be defined by its structure and the nature of its natural lighting. Even a space designed to remain in the dark should be light enough, from any mysterious opening, which shows us how dark it is in reality “ – Louis Kahn
Multimillionaire Kay Kimbell was an art enthusiast and desired to own an Art Gallery which could serve as a space to exhibit his primary collection of paintings from the 17th and the 18th century. His team approached many famous Architects such as Meis Van Der Rohe and I.M. Pei. Kimbell chose to work with Kahn because of his vision of the play of natural light within the space. He himself was a firm believer in encompassing natural light within a space and that it would enhance the beauty of his paintings.
The museum is acknowledged as an architectural masterpiece. Kahn took 3 years to give 4 design proposals. He aimed to develop features that contextualize and are a blend of aesthetic personality and liquid functionality. He tried to incorporate the rural essence of Fort Worth by using covered cycloid barrel vaults as roofs. The vaults were rimed with narrow plexiglass skylights, which allowed the natural light to penetrate the spaces. The daylight further helped to soften the contrast between the reflector and the cement vaulting. They used fully perforated reflectors in spaces that did not require protection from the harsh daylight, whereas to block the daylight in certain areas, the rims were left without perforating the central part.
The museum was composed using six parallel barrel vaults of concrete, with artificial lights of the ceiling along its length to create intimate spaces. The vaults depicted monumentality due to their scale, yet reflected the contemporary nature through its nakedness and use of concrete. The form is in temporal with the classical Roman architecture, due to their lack of revivalist detail.
The west facade of the building houses three 100-foot bays, each aligned with an open, barrel-vaulted portico, with a glazed central bay, making it the most important facade of the structure. The spaces of the galleries create a smooth movement from one vault to another by removing the wall and does not lead to the delineation of individual vault shape. The light within the interior space is an articulation of the detail created between the vault and the beam.
There are 3 courtyards inside the galleries, formed within the vaults in certain locations. Kahn wanted to bring the light inside the galleries, with the piece of the outside world to the interiors. The museum is surrounded by a forest and a pond that add a suitable environment to the whole ambiance of the place.
The elegant composition of parallel concrete vaults is revealed to the visitor even before they enter the site with the extended porches. According to Kahn, the porches are unnecessary and help in defining the vocabulary of the entire structural museum. The cycloidal vaults are supported by a concrete beam with a cross-section of 2.54 by 0.58 meters placed on four square columns. The vaults meet the mission-covered roofs, which is used to create an abstract order, a genesis for the creation of more complexity.
Unlike the classical precedents, the shells are connected using concrete struts at every distance of ten-foot creating skylights at the top of the vaults. Kahn and his team of engineers placed long steel cables along the length of the vaults, which were later tightened using hydraulic jacks. The system of post-tensioning that distributes and supports the weight of the roof was used to hold the weight of the vaults, inspired by the suspension bridge.
The void created as a result of the union of the vault and the wall form a crossbar, which allows the interior to light up with the oblique rays that enter the space. The rhythmic forms of the roof provide a vivid aesthetic visual while climbing the ramps, which can be seen from the two facades of the building.
Kahn tried to identify and resolve every possible detail in his design. He also chose the materials that complemented his ideologies and concept and at the same time complemented each other. The materials used to construct the Kimbell Art Museum are travertine, concrete, white oak, metal, and glass.
Kahn viewed concrete as both an aesthetic and structural choice. He used concrete vaults in Kimbell’s galleries to acquire a shimmer with light to create subtle luminosity. With a set mind to attain a proper grey tone with a tint of lavender, Kahn made many attempts with different mixtures of sand and cement and tested them to achieve the pleasing color and the soft tones of the travertine in the Texas sun.
The use of the rough textured travertine was inspired by his sketches and studies he made as a student on his travel through Italy. He used such materials to emulate timeless and monolithic qualities. Travertine was used in Kimbell’s interior and exterior walls, gallery floors, porches, and stairs. The lead was selected for roof cover due to its texture and color, with the idea of approach towards natural appearance. He used white oak for gallery floors, doors, and cabinets, while he used aluminum for soffits and reflectors. He used folded metal to create uniquely shaped handrails to emphasize the quality of the material.
Louis Kahn designed impeccable structures and shaped the idea of the modern architectural style of the coming generations. His idea of the play of natural light and the use of smooth elegant textured material was reflected in the majority of his structures. He tried to imbed the natural aesthetics of the material into his designs while inculcating transparent characters to the building. He integrated the aspects that are relevant today and accustomed to soft factors such as wind, light, and water. He viewed architecture as not only a means to satisfy the utilitarian needs but as an instrument of artistic speculation.