Walking Through the Kimbell

Wendy Lesser

On March 26, “Louis Kahn: The Power of Architecture,” a traveling exhibition of the great architect’s papers, sketches, and models, arrives at one of his most celebrated buildings, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. Wendy Lesser, author of the new Kahn biography, You Say to Brick, will participate in a public symposium on Kahn’s life and work at the Kimbell on March 25. To celebrate the exhibit, the symposium, and You Say to Brick’s publication, here is a tour of the Kimbell Museum, excerpted from Lesser’s acclaimed new biography.


You Say To Brick by Wendy Lesser
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Like all art museums, the Kimbell is a place for looking and seeing. The relationship between the architecture and the art is intense and mutually reinforcing, and both are a delight to the eye. Great paintings look especially good on these walls—in part due to the light that is cast upon them, a perfect mixture of natural and artificial illumination, and in part because of the congenial textures and spaces that surround the works of art. Kahn’s building never seems to overpower the paintings: it sees itself as their setting, their background, while nonetheless taking an active role in their display.

“The building does dictate the kind of art you can show,” says Eric Lee, the Kimbell’s current director. “You can’t exhibit terribly large paintings, so we haven’t acquired them. Also, strong paintings look better in this building, weaker paintings fall apart. So the building has helped dictate the quality of the collection.” The spell the Kimbell casts apparently works on visiting paintings, too. Gesturing toward a large Matisse on loan from the Chicago Art Institute—the beautiful Bathers by a River, which here hangs alone on the central vault’s travertine end wall—Lee repeats a comment made by his deputy director, George Shackelford, at the time this loan exhibition was installed: “He said this wall has waited its whole life for that painting, and that painting has waited its whole life to hang on that wall.”

All this is true. The museum highlights and glorifies one sense above all, the sense of sight. And yet it also, curiously, emphasizes the limits of what can be seen. The building suggests that what your eyes tell you is truth of a kind, but not necessarily the whole truth, not an absolute and permanent truth. There are stories behind the stories, and scenes behind the scenes. The unseen, the unperceived, has its importance in this museum, as you only come to realize over time. Appearances can be deceptive—in a pleasurable way, granted, rather than a cruel one, but still in a way that misleads. And yet such deceptions are part of the building’s pursuit of truth, just as a novelist’s inventions serve the truths that can only be told in fiction. The Kimbell Art Museum is Kahn’s version of a Tolstoy novel: grand but contained, artful yet persuasively real, a blending of the physical world as we know it and something only the imagination can grasp.

Take, for instance, the most distinctive feature of the interior, the arched ceilings that curve over the individual galleries, each shedding its measure of natural light from above. Being inside these long, high rooms makes you feel utterly at peace: a bit like the sensation you get in England’s Dulwich Picture Gallery, perhaps, except that here Sir John Soane’s elegant nineteenth-century materials and structures have been replaced by something distinctly modern. The concrete vault over your head is high enough to give you a sense of grandeur, not so high as to intimidate, with a gentle, unspectacular curve that holds the facing walls and all the paintings on them in its tender embrace. Each gallery’s ceiling seems composed of a single continuous piece of concrete, smooth and yet also faintly textured. The pearly gray surface appears to glow from within, especially as it reaches its peak, where the arch disappears under the winglike aluminum brackets—both spotlight holders and sunlight disseminators—that hang just beneath the ceiling. Somehow the harsh Texas sunlight which prevails outdoors has been converted into a cool, silver-tinted beam that bathes the concrete and the paintings and the people who stand in front of them, making everything seem as if it exactly belongs there.

“It has that feeling I have with really special buildings, like the Pantheon,” observes Nancy Edwards, a curator of European art who has been at the Kimbell for over twenty years. “The perfectness of the space, forever here. The perfect proportion, how it fits your body. And the light, different at every time of day. It has this durability and ephemerality at the same time.” Elaborating on how this feeling is created by the particular curve and size of the arch, she points to “the ceiling height, but also the magic of the cycloid vault, because it’s such a pleasing shape. The way it floats on top, and the clerestory gives you the idea of something above you. Part of it is the trick of the way the light bounces on that silvery surface. It acts as a sort of sky. That whole idea of a vault and a heaven: I’m sure Kahn thought about those things, because it’s such an antique analogy.”

Then Edwards pauses, as if thinking of some of the implications behind her words, especially terms like magic and trick. “Everything seems so simple, but when you look it’s a little bit more complex,” she goes on. “I was thinking: yes, but there’s the slit down the middle.”

She is referring to the fact that the vault’s arch is not really a single continuous arch at all, but rather, two identically curved concrete shells that swoop upward toward each other and then fail to meet. That failure, that gap, is covered over by the aluminum reflector that diffuses the sunlight coming through the central slit and turns it into a silvery glow on the uppermost reaches of the finely textured concrete. The effect is glorious, but it is definitely an effect, a calculated invention to make you feel that light is being shed from an unseen source. And yet this is also the truth: the source is unseen, unless you manage to get to one of the few places in the building (the off-limits mezzanine library, for example) where you are close enough to the ceiling to spot the gap between the shells.

Nancy Edwards’ sense that the concrete ceiling is floating over her head is shared by just about everyone who enters these rooms. But that too is a trick of sorts, an element of the “magic” created by Louis Kahn and his engineer August Komendant. As you look down the length of the vaulted gallery, it will seem as if the entire concrete structure is resting on quarter-inch glass: on the curved strip of clerestory window that surmounts the travertine arch at the end of the hall, and on the long, thin, horizontal window that runs along the top of the outermost gallery walls. But the ceiling only seems to rest on these slender bits of glass. In reality, it is supported not only by the metal post-tensioning cables buried invisibly within the four-inch-thick concrete shells, but also by four massive concrete columns standing in the corners of each vault. The seeming miracle is not a miracle, but a cunning feat of engineering.

It was, in fact, a purely technical engineering requirement that gave the building one of its most subtle visual effects, the elegant shape of the end-windows. Because Komendant insisted that the concrete arch sustaining each pair of shells had to thicken as it approached the top, the glass arc beneath it had to be thinned correspondingly, and the result is perhaps the most alluring “light joint” (as he called it) that Kahn ever created. It cannot help but remind you of church architecture, once you notice it; it definitely contributes to your sense that you are standing in a heavenly vault, or at least a cathedral nave. Yet the diminishment in the window’s width is so gradual, so natural, that you may well sense the modulation before you see it. It, too, is at once visible and invisible.

• • •

Even from the outside, the Kimbell’s apparent straightforwardness is somewhat deceptive. The building presents itself from the front as a piece of Palladian symmetry, with forward-thrusting outer wings—each containing five full vaults plus one hollow, vault-sized portico—flanking a center section of equal length that contains only four vaults. The extra space in front of the central part leaves room for a grand entrance, or would leave room for that, if this structure had actually been designed by Palladio. Instead, Kahn’s entrance is obscured by a courtyard full of trees, and when you get close enough to see the doorway, you discover it is a simple glass door camouflaged within the surrounding curtain wall. Nor are the outer clusters of vaults readily visible or countable from the front. You really only get a sense of their shape, number, and connection from a sidelong view (a view that may remind you, if you have seen them, of the sequentially joined arched pavilions of Riga’s Central Market).

“I think the Kahn building is most beautiful at these angles, and best approached from these angles,” comments Eric Lee as he walks diagonally across the coarse, yellowing St. Augustine grass toward the southwest corner of the museum. When asked why he feels that way, he honestly admits, “I don’t know.” But he is certainly responding to something that is evident elsewhere in Kahn’s practice—the sense that oblique approaches are the truest ones, and that entrances should be a bit hard to find.

Once you are inside the Kimbell, the feeling of symmetry quickly disappears, for the vaults are all divided up in different ways, giving each side of the building, and each story of it, an entirely different feeling. Downstairs lie the practical features of the museum: a loading dock to the north, curatorial offices and a conservation studio to the south, and a second entrance hall at the center. Each of these has its own size and shape, and each possesses its own unexpected facets. For instance, the conservation lab is a double-height room that looks out on its own double-height courtyard—a secret court extending up through the gallery level, where it is enclosed on all four sides and therefore invisible. A separate light-well, the size and length of the space between vaults, backs onto the curatorial offices and is disguised at the upper level by the portico wall. In both cases, an abundance of natural light is one of the special benefits Kahn conferred on the Kimbell’s backstage workers. “It’s just a concrete wall, but I always say it’s the best view in North Texas: it’s amazing watching the light changing, it’s like a painting out there,” Eric Lee remarks about the view out his back window. Claire Barry, the head of conservation, considers her double-height courtyard just one aspect of the building’s brilliant design. “One thing I always notice: there’s the same attention to detail in the behind-the-scenes places as there is in the public space,” observes Barry. “It’s not like that in other museums.”

Up in the public galleries, too, there are a series of small eccentricities that break up the overall pattern. Each wing of the museum has an accessible interior courtyard, but they are not mirror images of each other. The grandest courtyard, centered in the North Wing, showcases one of the eight bronze and lead casts of Maillol’s voluptuous figure L’ Air, a sculpture Kahn had treasured ever since encountering the Yale Art Gallery’s version. (He was apparently so fixated on its presence in Fort Worth that he even included the floating womanly shape in some of his earliest sketches for the Kimbell.) In the South Wing, the small “Penelope Courtyard,” nicknamed after a sculpture in its midst, lurks between two galleries, accessible from either but gauzily curtained off from both. And to the east of this smallest courtyard, on the other side of the museum’s central corridor, lies the walled-off middle-sized interior square leading down to the conservation studio. It is a feature that takes up space but is not, as a courtyard, present or even visible from the galleries. One doesn’t miss it; one doesn’t even know it is there. Deceptions like this are possible not only because the galleries all have different shapes (most of the walls, with the exception of the travertine end walls, are movable), but also because most visitors will be focused on something other than the building. After all, if you have come to the Kimbell Art Museum, it is probably to see the art.

The paintings come alive in this place. According to the experts, the color temperature created by the Kimbell’s precise combination of artificial and natural light is in the 3500K to 3800K range, the “sweet spot” for viewing color. But you don’t need to have any scientific tools at your disposal to perceive that something special is going on in this museum.

Here, landscapes have the feel of being actually outdoors. Interiors and portraits glow. Pastel colors gain an added strength, and white highlights leap forward. Even a monochrome sketch like Degas’s After the Bath, done in charcoal on yellow tracing paper, has a depth and intensity one wouldn’t see elsewhere. And when paint comes into play, the specificity of color is remarkable. In Caillebotte’s On the Pont de l’Europe, for instance, the gray-blue of the metal bridge is pocked by round metal studs in a slightly darker gray, while the men passing along the bridge wear coats and hats in other shades ranging from blue-gray through black-gray—all these different grays distinctly visible, as if for the first time, in the Kimbell’s splendid illumination.

Because the paintings are for the most part small, or at any rate human-sized, they are fully graspable when viewed straight on from a couple of feet away. They allow you to form an intimate, one-on-one connection with them. The portraits, too, are hung so that the faces are just about at face height (if you are roughly five foot six, which was Kahn’s height), and this increases the intimacy of the encounter. You may even get the feeling that some of these faces are leaning toward you, and that is not an optical illusion, for the paintings hanging on the travertine walls are actually suspended by nearly invisible threads that descend from above, causing the upper edge of each frame to jut out slightly while the bottom edge rests against the wall. This not only has the effect of making the image loom gently forward; it also makes the whole painting seem as if it were floating in air. And the travertine wall itself—which is set forward from the concrete ceiling above it, so that it again seems to bring the painting toward you—noticeably enriches the images placed against it. The warm, textured stone never competes with or distracts you from the pictures; on the contrary, it lends them added life.

• • •

That is the Kimbell on a normal, sunny day. On a few evenings a month, though, visitors are allowed to remain in the galleries at night, and if you happen to be there then, you will witness a startling transformation. As the sun sinks below the horizon, the galleries darken unevenly, so that one side of the long vault briefly seems to be a slightly different color from the other. That last light coming through the reflectors onto the concrete ceiling appears almost blue in tone, compared to the silvery gray it was at midday, and the metal reflectors themselves—which are such a noticeable, winglike presence in the day—dull out and become much less visible against the ceiling. The concrete retains its texture, but more vaguely, more recessively. And the strong arcs of the clerestory windows, those subtly curved shapes which lent the vaults their churchlike appearance, are now muted to near-invisibility.

As evening approaches, the spotlights on the paintings and the shadows behind the frames become stronger and more noticeable. In place of the even, overall light of daytime, you now have a lot of smaller, more focused lights. The walls, fading into darkened areas around the paintings, have less of a forward presence. All the color and texture distinctions in the structure itself, so visible in the day—the transition from wood to travertine on the floor, say, or from concrete to metal on the ceiling—become much more blurred at sunset. The building seems more uniform in color, a mere background container for the spotlit art. And the paintings themselves are more like what you are used to in ordinary museums—less alive, more pointedly on display, not actively coming toward you. Color suffers, naturally, but monochrome suffers even more: the Degas nude has gone dead, so that it now looks more like a clinical analysis, a mere prep for a painting rather than an artwork in itself.

The twilight period at the Kimbell is all about loss—the disappearance of the natural light, the effacing of once-clear distinctions, the magical turning ordinary. But then, once darkness has fallen, the museum’s other qualities take over. You become more aware of the intimacy of the small, linked galleries, the warm, inviting coziness of rooms glimpsed through other rooms. At the same time, you have a sense of something grand and monumental hanging overhead, a feeling of quiet awe that finds reinforcement in the shadows cast by the sculptures and the spotlit beauty of individual paintings. The courtyards, too, acquire a new kind of allure, with the Penelope Courtyard darkened and only the Maillol lit up in the larger North Court; the museum’s interior is now brighter than the enclosed exterior, and that produces its own kind of spell.

It is a different and a lesser place, the Kimbell viewed at night, but it is still a beautiful one, and if you had never seen the museum by daylight, you would take deep plea sure from your evening encounter with it. One imagines that to see it first by night, with its mysterious vaults above, and then to come back in the day, with sunlight diffusing through those vaults, would affect one as powerfully as the grandest of musical revelations. It would be like hearing the all-male King’s College Choir first with its adult voices only, and only later with the unearthly sopranos of its boy choristers added in. Light, in Kahn’s hands, becomes something almost audible—something that touches one through senses other than sight.

In the end, what is most special about the Kimbell is not only the light itself, but the way light enters and defi nes the room in which you are standing. That is not just an architectural experience. It also gets at the essence of art, where the visual becomes something tangible—where light itself becomes tangible. As the art critic T. J. Clark put it, alluding to the paintings of Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch: “It is no mean feat for painting to put objects in a room, and describe the room, and have light enter it . . . And it is even rarer to have light in the picture enter a room not as a mysterious effulgence but as an object among objects, attaching itself to things, vying with them for priority.” In the same book, Picasso and Truth, he goes on to point out that

there is one thing painting finds indispensable: namely, space—the making of an imaginatively habitable three dimensions, one having a specific character, offering itself as a surrounding whose shape and extent we can enter into . . . Being, for human beings—and how deep is the pathos of that recursive noun— seems to have as its very precondition being “in”: reaching out, really or imaginatively, and feeling the limits of a place.

Clark is talking specifically about Picasso here, that great modernist who was so much admired by his near-contemporary, Louis Kahn. But he could just as easily be speaking about the Kimbell Art Museum, where the experiences of “being” and “being in” are brought so forcibly together, and where the light cast within the paintings joins with the light cast upon them to give rise to a new kind of contemplation.

New, and yet always there; created, but also retrieved. When he finished the Kimbell Art Museum in 1972, Kahn said at the dedication ceremony, “This building feels—and it’s a good feeling—as though I had nothing to do with it, that some other hand did it. Because it is a premise constructed.” And what he meant by that curious remark is connected to another of his comments about the architectural process. “There’s something that pulls on you,” he said, “as though you were reaching out to something primordial, something that existed much before yourself. You realize when you are in the realm of architecture that you are touching the basic feelings of man and that architecture would never have been part of humanity if it weren’t the truth to begin with.”

Swimmer Among the Stars

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Wendy Lesser is the founder and editor of The Threepenny Review and the author of a novel and several previous books of nonfiction, including Why I Read (FSG, 2014), which garnered rave reviews from coast to coast. She has written for The New York Times Book Review, the London Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. To complete this biography, she was awarded one of the first National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar awards, the only one given to a Californian in 2015.

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