Monday, June 1, 2009

Beautiful Buildings

The Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, TX, 1967 - 1972, designed by Louis I. Kahn

One of the galleries in the museum

Skylight in one of the vaults with a perforated screen to soften the sunlight.

This gets my vote for most beautiful museum in the United States. It's a pharaonic monument to a Texas billionaire, Kay Kimbell, a grade school drop-out who got rich in oil and groceries. He fell in love with art, and in 1935 established a foundation with the intention of putting together a collection and founding a museum. The museum was not built until after his death in 1964.
Another man from a very hard-luck background made good, Louis Isadore Kahn, the son of destitute Estonian Jewish immigrants, designed this building. He conceived the museum as rows of vaulted halls, with a long skylight in the top of each vault. To soften the harsh Texas sunlight, he added perforated screens to the skylights. The sunlight gives the concrete vaults a polished silvery quality that beautifully lights the galleries beneath. The galleries are grand and of a comfortable, even intimate scale. Warm hardwood floors and travertine marble answer the cool silvery tonality of the vaults, and make the perfect setting for great paintings and sculpture without overpowering them.
I visited this museum regularly when I was a teenager. I got my first real taste of first rate "Old Master" art ( I HATE that term) in this museum. I've been a fan of Louis Kahn's architecture ever since.

The Raymond Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, TX, designed by Renzo Piano

The perforated skylight screen

One of the galleries in the sculpture center.

Another splendid pharaonic monument to a Texas billionaire, and a beautiful homage to Kahn's building in Fort Worth, is the Sculpture Center bequeathed by the late Raymond Nasher, who made his fortune, not in oil, but in real estate and commercial development (very Dallas). All his life, he was an enthusiastic collector of modern and contemporary sculpture. I remember my father complaining about all the weird sculpture on the extensive lawns of his mansion in Highland Park.

Lest we think the art-museum-as-personal-monument is a distinctly Texan phenomenon, let's remember the Lehman Wing of the Metropolitan Museum in New York (known by the Museum staff as "The Mausoleum," every inch a vanity monument with strict rules about keeping the collection separate from the rest of the Musem). Let's not forget the man who started this whole phenomenon of the personal art museum, that saber-toothed industrialist Henry Clay Frick. When he wasn't shooting (or being shot by) striking steel workers, he was hiring the great art historian and critic Roger Fry to put together a first rate art collection for him (and Fry really earned whatever Frick paid him; the collection is not large, but superb). And of course, there is the man who effectively owned and ran the United States for decades until he met his match in Theodore Roosevelt, JP Morgan, who created a library that is practically an art museum.

I will say that the Texas billionaires picked much better architects for their monuments, which are grand but not overpowering (unlike the Lehman Wing of the Met, or even Frick's palatial museum on 5th Avenue and East 70th).

1 comment:

toujoursdan said...

The Kimball was one of my favourite buildings in the Metroplex. The overall experience was much better than the DMA, which tried to be the jack of all trades but master of none.