The Renzo Piano Pavilion pays homage to the timeless creation by Louis Kahn, creating layers of history just 65 yards apart. Uncovering meanings embedded in Piano’s design equips our imaginations and builds forms of cultural expression which creates a meaningful profound dialogue between two masterpieces. 

The Kimbell Art Museum Extension was designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop in 2013 after the management decided to plan an extension to accommodate its emerging special exhibitions and educational programmes. This new building would allow showcasing all of the Kimbell Museum’s permanent collection in the original building which was designed by Louis Khan in 1972.  

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Relationships between two Kimbell Museums ©Renzo Piano Building Workshop

Renzo Piano, an Italian architect who previously had worked under Louis Kahn was put in charge of the new Kimbell Extension. They thought it would be befitting to appoint someone who would understand Kahn’s approach and celebrate the qualities and subtleties of the original building. 

Kahn’s building has been a timeless piece of architecture since its construction and Piano’s strategy was to engage in a conversation with his mentor’s works. By allowing his pavilion to reflect the qualities of the original museum, yet extending his interpretation is inspiring without being imposing. 

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Kimbell Museum Ground ©Aerial Photography Inc.

Piano studied every aspect of Kahn’s Kimbell building – from plans to construction detail, to cognate and resonate with the original language and intent. Known for its natural light and materiality, Piano set out to construct a building in conversation and polyphony. 

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Plan ©www.archdaily.com
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Sectional Relationships between two Kimbell Museums ©www.archdaily.com

Separated by a lawn, the new pavilion is more extroverted, open and acts almost like a foyer that frames Kahn’s building to the east. Maintaining the suggestive sequence of a tripartite plan, height and scale – Piano’s new building maintains a low profile, descending underground, accommodating for parking that modifies the entrance sequence and opens up the visitors to the main entrance of Kahn’s and the new building. 

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Materials used by Piano ©Nic Lehoux

The parallels drawn between the two buildings are also differentiated by the distinct features of the two architects. Where Kahn uses a monumental vault shape, Piano uses a humble Post-Beam system, and where Kahn brings loggia and masonry plinth into play; an overhang and plain earth is enough for Piano. He maintains the scale and timelessness of his predecessor by using Glass, Oakwood, Steel and Concrete, which echoes Kahn but also maintains his artistic convection.

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Low scale and Horizontality of the Pavilion ©www.archdaily.com

With three main masses lining up as well as parallelling Kahn’s vaults, the Piano pavilion speaks in hushed and subdued tones. The central mass of the museum extension acts as a forecourt similar to Kahn’s, inviting people onto a generously scaled lobby which then further extends to the South Gallery on the left and North gallery on the right. 

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Moveable Display Panels ©Robert Polidori

The glazed pavilion allows for views across the landscaped grounds to Kahn’s museum and also references the activities inside. Beyond the galleries, the building closes the gap of eastern and western halves by extending a shaded enclosure, creating the space in between the inside and the outside. These promenades recapitulate Kahn’s courtyards, in a less monumental fashion emphasising on the motifs of openness and architecture that is light sensitive. 

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Transparency of the Piano Pavilion ©www.archdaily.com
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300 Seater Theatre with shifting daylight ©Robert Polidori

These passageways lead to the back end of the building, which houses a 300 seat auditorium, educational and support facilities as well as a low light gallery. The interior circulation and the double stairs are among the many direct quotations from the Kahn building. The ceremonial passage, surrounded by concrete walls brings the visitors from the parking to the main floor of the building. Piano also uses light wells to light the servant spaces and the auditorium, creating dramatic and shifting patterns of natural light throughout the day. 

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Light wells with Green turf roof above the auditorium ©www.archdaily.com
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Roof and Beam Detail ©www.archdaily.com

Renzo Piano is celebrated for his roof designs and their details. With the Art Institute Of Chicago, Menil Collection, Fondation Beyeler and Nasher Sculpture Centre, Piano has showcased his skillful mastery in bringing in daylight through the roof with details, material and performance that evokes a sense of timelessness and an atmosphere of transcendence. 

The construction of the Piano pavilion has a simple appearance but the technology is undeniably contemporary. He uses a double beam system that rests on a single column. Piano uses pairs of laminated timber beams made out of Douglas fir that holds up the roof assembly which is an impressive structural as well as an aesthetic solution. Then held up by pin joints which makes the beam-column connection appear less solid and gives each material and its components a sense of autonomy. He does not completely conceal his approach by covering up the construction techniques that are consistently used. 

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Photovoltaic Adjustable Louvres ©www.archdaily.com

The horizontal trusses provide lateral bracing and also remain hidden by a layer of fabric scrim that stretches between the beams. Further, he manages to integrate the electrical services in between the gaps of the structural system and mechanical services by supplying air through the Oak floors and returning air through the reveal on top of the concrete shear wall, utilising the natural buoyancy of warm air. Small gaps in the tongue and groove joints between floorboards allow the air to pass slowly.

The transparency of the building is broken on each side of the building by square columns that support the overhanging eaves of the glass roof, they give double up as sun shading elements. The colonnaded pavilion with overhanging eaves exudes an impression of weightlessness, with the glass roof seeming like it is floating above. With the addition of the green turf roof on the western section of the building, it showcases a more democratic and accessible approach of Piano’s design to invite people into his pavilion and then Kahn’s version of Kimbell.

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Silk Finish Concrete Walls ©Nic Lehoux

The muted representation of Kahn’s cycloid vault can be seen in Piano’s Pavilion as he uses gently curved panels of glass to form the roof profile. With that, the pavilion also ensures a gentle, twice filtered light from above as well as allows light from the sides, almost like bright lines, that provide visual contrast emphasising the independence of the beam structure from the wall below it. 

Another feature of Piano’s pavilion is the use of photovoltaic panels using a louvre system. They can be rotated manually and can be configured to allow for optimum light to enter the museum depending on the artwork. They become an important aspect in curating the space, not just serving functionally but also aesthetically. Below the solar panels lies a layer of Canted fritted glass, with a white interlayer and acid etch that reduce reflections. 

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Collonade ©Nic Lehoux

Instead of explicit distinction for all details, Piano opts for a monolithic quality towards the ground where all of the joints become concealed or meet flat to give minimal contrast. Without visible intrusions, it becomes an ideal environment to maintain a visual focus and view art. Piano loosely subdivided movable walls that do not touch the ceiling or the floor, they lure the viewers to be lost in the museum. 

The interior walls can be reconfigured or eliminated giving complete freedom to the experimental curatorial excursions. The usage of a concrete wall gives strength to the volume and serves as a backdrop for the artefact that stands aesthetically significantly.

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An expression of simplicity ©Timothy Hursley

The intimacy of the scale and Piano’s intuitiveness radiates out of this very humane building, that is crammed with aspirations, highlighting everything that subsists before and inside it. It possesses intangible qualities of light and society. 

Sitting before the piece of history, it amalgamates technology, art and architecture. Piano does not aim for any extravagance but allows space to envelop us, relate to us, and be a part of us. The pavilion is open, accessible and holds together all the specificities of the Older Kimbell as well the site, the landscape, its found objects and memories. 

Nakshi Shah
Author

Nakshi is a recent architecture graduate from BSSA, Mumbai who thrives on the visual and the literary. With a special interest in graphic design, urban design and research, Nakshi is deeply interested in culture, poetry and music. Born and raised in Mumbai, she is often found scrolling through random newsletters or searching for vinyl and erasers to add to her collection

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