PRINT February 1968

Louis Kahn’s New Museum in Fort Worth

LOUIS I. KAHN IS BUILDING a new art museum for the Kimbell Art Foundation, in Fort Worth, Texas. That Kahn has been for the past several years “first in professional importance among living American architects,”1 and that the ambitious Kimbell Foundation has Dr. Richard Fargo Brown as Director, make it possible that the Kimbell building, when it opens in 1971, will be the best museum building in the country.

The Kimbell Art Museum will give Fort Worth, with a projected population of 600,000 by 1970 but only 30 miles from larger Dallas, a three-museum complex: the Kimbell, the Amon Carter Museum (which is undergoing a transition from Charles Russell-Frederick Remington to a larger view of American art) and the Fort Worth Art Center. There is even a possibility that this troika will be physically joined: the Carter and the Art Center, across the boulevard from each other, with a pedestrian overpass, and the Kimbell and the Carter, neighbors, by walkways.2

The Kimbell Art Foundation (b. 1936) consists of the holdings left by grocery-grain-oil industrialist Kay Kimbell and the community property added by his widow. As it stands now, the foundation has a collection of 200 objects, 60 of which are voided (as exhibits in the museum) by policy restrictions; the Kimbell Museum will not, as of now, handle contemporary art (the most recent object dates 1917). Brown is hopeful that a working agreement can be reached among the three museums: the Art Center, a serviceable building from a Herbert Bayer design, handling contemporary art; the Amon Carter, a recent Philip Johnson building, continuing its emphasis on American art, and the Kimbell being devoted to Old Masters and non-Western art. There is nothing, however, in the Kimbell’s policy statement3 making the restrictions permanent: “. . . the paramount duty of the Kimbell Art Museum is to display and interpret to present generations and preserve for future generations, the highest aspirations of past generations as represented in the works of art entrusted to its care.”

Brown was Director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art when it moved from the old Exposition Park barn into Pereira’s angelfood cake on Wilshire Boulevard; his career as a best-of-both-worlds man (a good scholar with a liking for vanguard art) came to a temporary halt when he ran afoul of Trustees Ahmanson, Simon and Carter, who rejected, among other things, Brown’s personal choice of Mies van der Rohe as architect. Now Brown has, again, lots of money, but a board of directors who realize the sensibleness of an unfettered museum administrator. (The building has a grand total cost of six and a half million dollars and the Kimbell policy calls for a strong acquisition program, with the capital funds necessary for it.)

The impression may exist that museums have just always been around, and this isn’t true,4 though the barrage of press releases and the chugging of cement-mixers indicate otherwise. The proliferation of the art museum involves a corresponding breeding of ideas about what a museum should be or should do. Alexander Eliot, who for years gave Time-Life’s ideas on art, thought that a good museum show should have 1) good works, 2) new works, 3) cohesiveness in number and selection, 4) no crowds, 5) no “hurry” and 6) as much natural light as possible.5 Thomas Messer of the Guggenheim thinks that “the mission is accomplished when 1) each work is shown to full advantage, 2) the open spiral ramp (of the Guggenheim) can be viewed from every conceivable position with a sense of revealing harmony in horizontal, vertical and diagonal directions, 3) a sequence is attained that is meaningful and clear in terms of the exhibition.”6 Marcel Breuer, architect of the new Whitney, believes the building a success when it functions well as 1) a symbol—“a continuity of existing lines, surfaces, and materials,“ 2) a streetscape, 3) a manscape, and 4) a machine (for viewing art).7 With Kahn there is a natural affinity concerning the order of a museum: “A museum, in terms of Kahn’s definition, has a very clear organization of served and servant spaces.”8 The served spaces—galleries, lecture rooms, classrooms, libraries, etc.—are served by workshops, laboratories, storage rooms, offices and mechanical plants.

Louis Kahn’s served-servant outlook crystallized in the Alfred Newton Richards Medical Towers at the University of Pennsylvania; the smaller servant towers, carrying wires, heating, and foul-air ducts, rise co-vertically with the “served” spaces, with the ease of their being as part of the basic inspiration for the building. The division fusion of spaces is prior, in Kahn’s thinking, to even the first “idea” for a building; it is in Kahn’s “asking” the building what it “wants” to be; it is Kahn’s belief in “laws” that, to an extent, enable the building to design itself. Kahn’s first major success, moreover, was the Yale Art Gallery (1951–53), a contemporary museum whose reputation, unlike others, has brightened with use. In it, Kahn managed to span great areas, creating a versatile space, with a specific architectural coup, the tetrahedronal ceiling, which grew from and performed Kahn’s served-servant process. In Louis I. Kahn, Brown feels he has the architect whose style is germinal to the second half of the 20th century—as strongly as he felt that Mies was “the best architect of the first half.”

Louis Kahn was born in 1901 on the Island of Osel, Russia, and emigrated to the United States in 1905;9 ten years later he became an American citizen and began to study art, industrial arts and architecture. At 20, he held his first job as a draftsman and began his career as an architect (associated with, in that early phase, Hoffman & Henon, Hewitt & Ash, William H. Lee and John Molitor, all in Philadelphia). Before assuming independent practice in 1934, Kahn experienced his major early influences; he met George Howe (of Lescaze & Howe, e.g. the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society Building) and Stonorov and learned of the “modernist” movement (Corbusier); he travelled in Europe, where he made some remarkably strong drawings. His experience with Molitor, City Architect for Philadelphia, the general intensification of social-consciousness during the Depression, and, reportedly, Percival and Paul Good-man’s Communitas, led Kahn into housing projects and city planning, the general humanism of which still manifests itself in Kahn’s single buildings. During the late ’30s and the war years, Kahn joined Howe and Stonorov and worked with the Philadelphia Housing Authority. (Kahn was, as architects go, poor; he has been, until recently, unrecognized. Now, with the Richards Towers, the Rochester Unitarian Church, and the Salk Institute behind him and vast projects, such as the capital buildings for Dacca, East Pakistan, in process, Kahn, as successful architects go, maintains a small staff in modest over-the-drugstore offices.)

In 1947, Kahn was invited to teach at Yale, and while “Chief Critic” encountered the art gallery opportunity. Kahn relates a story about the gallery’s tetrahedronal ceiling: the resident engineer doubted the ceiling’s feasibility, pressure from the Trustees was mounting, and Kahn was told to come up with some proof of the ceiling’s stability. Remembering a friend in Florida who had, during the war, built concrete boats, Kahn took the problem to him. “Just what I’ve always wanted to do,” the fellow said, and came up with a sheet full of figures. Kahn, on faith, handed the mysterious (to him) sheet to the Yale engineer, and the ceiling was approved. To say that the Yale Art Gallery was Kahn’s “Anatomy School of Dr. Tulp” is an over simplification, but his real rise began with that building.

In 1957, after a decade at Yale, Kahn returned to Philadelphia as Professor of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. (Kahn is a good teacher, a warm and enthusiastic talker who can bring off syrupy statements likening tradition to a “golden dust” which, being “touched” by us, can bring the “powers of anticipation,” with sheer sincerity.) At Pennsylvania he met the engineer August Komendant, and the acquaintance has been crucial; Kahn regards Komendant, an expert on concrete, as an “intuitive mathematician.” Komendant thinks similarly of Kahn: “The material most closely corresponding to his architectural philosophy is concrete, and thus his selection is instinctive.”10 Komendant will engineer, as per the concrete instructions, the Kimbell Museum. Kahn’s two recent major American buildings, the Unitarian Church in Rochester and the partially completed Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, have, taken together, a “look”: cubical spares of concrete with unique abuttings of concrete slabs. (Kahn believes the joint to be the origin of valid architectural ornament.) Kahn as an architectural stylist, however, goes much deeper than “look”; the Dacca buildings use the circle dramatically; in the Ahmedabad (India) Management Institute, “an ancient material, brick, is being used and its order respected. Concrete, a modern material, and its order, is being combined with the brick, formulating a composite order.”11 And then there are Kahn’s (probably) never-to-be-realized projects for the reorganization of Philadelphia, with the fantastic, crooked (triangular module) city tower. The point is that Louis Kahn is not about “look,” or even about style, but order, an architectural pantheism permitting each building, though dependent on fixed principles, to dictate its own design. (Kahn’s temperament is reminiscent of Hans Hofmann, who, for all his generous pontificating, never descended to a “look,” and who, like Kahn, was a genuine teacher.) The Kimbell building, even at this early stage, is a case in point: it is not what one would expect, but it is convincing and convincingly Louis Kahn.

The Kimbell Foundation presented the architect (and the others initially contacted: Rudolph, Bun-shaft, Mies, Pei, etc.) with a set of detailed specifications, beginning with the purpose and general esthetic aims of the building: “The building will exist to: 1) preserve and exhibit objects called works of art and 2) enable as many people as possible to experience those objects as effectively and pleasantly as possible: the ‘confrontation of the object and the observer’.”12 The statement continues: “The spaces, forms and textures should maintain a harmonious simplicity and human proportion between the visitor and the art objects observed.”13 There are particulars which would seem uncomfortable to a less settled ego than Kahn’s: “. . . the Kimbell Trustees agree to adhere to a height restriction of 40 feet, so as to avoid impeding the view from the Carter Museum.”14 The remaining specifications are exacting cost and square footage tables, unusually detailed, says Brown, even for this sort of job. The site is a 9-acre quadrangle, which slopes downward to the north (the building, using this, will be one story at the main entrance, but a lower story will exist in the rear). The lot has a good many trees; Kahn will remove as few as possible. Finally, the site adjoins Camp Bowie Boulevard, a wide thoroughfare and a concretion of what Brown feels to be a major factor: “The overwhelming, dominating factor in a museum visitor is that he comes on wheels.”

Kahn’s solution can be organized into what the architect considers a natural working order: 1) “Induction” (or the building’s first “idea” of itself, which, in further Kahnian terms, can be called the “form” stage), 2) “Deduction” (or the first transference of “form” into particular design; it is in this stage—with a small model and schematics—that the Kimbell Museum is now), and 3) “Construction” (including more than the contractor’s tasks; it amounts to solutions to all the specifics and, hopefully, a reunion of pragmatic “design” and “form”). Although Kahn is most free dealing with “form,” he feels there are a priori restrictions: “. . . an architect must use round wheels, and he must make his doors bigger than people. He is not the same man (as a painter or sculptor) his realm is different.”15 Kahn begins his plans with a neutral: “I use the square to begin my solutions, because the square is a non-choice, really. In the course of development, I search for the forces that would disprove the square.”16 Such forces are “the realm of spaces which characterize a schoolhouse (and) is not the realm of spaces which is a city hall (or a museum),”17 and they are modest, for the Kimbell Museum is a linking of two rectangles.

The Kimbell Museum of Art’s floor plan consists of (for illustration purposes, for Kahn does not think that there are “parts”) two rectangles joined by a smaller unit serving as a neck, or, as Kahn calls it simply, a “connector.” The rectangles and the connector are covered by a system of barrel vaults, spanning the area in rows. The area containing the entrance is smaller—three rows of vaults—the rear portion having, without the porch, six; the connector is three vaults long. The first vault of the front rectangle is open at the sides, a porch, an impressive and ceremonial entrance made by the span of the concrete vaults, supported by four visible columns. The next two vault rows cover, on the left as one enters, the auditorium, and on the right, the temporary exhibitions gallery. The auditorium and the temporary exhibitions gallery are separated by a corridor, beginning at the entrance and proceeding the entire length of the building; Kahn calls this the “spine” of the museum. The connector contains the bookstore and sales desk, and with it begins a second and lower level of the museum, coincidental with the slope of the site. The lower level, at the connect, is open to permit traffic between the two sculpture gardens extending outwards to the outer walls of the museum. The rear rectangle contains the permanent collection gallery, the focal point of the museum; the vaults over this gallery are punctuated at intervals, dictated by the floor plan, by open courts. These courts serve a dual purpose: breathing spaces for the visitor and, their side walls being partially glass, as “light wells.” Beneath the permanent collection gallery are offices, storage, laboratories, main plant and shipping and receiving. Before the entrance, there are two large pools, an entrance court, and a special niche for a large Maillol sculpture. The plan of the museum at first seems ordinary and unimaginative, until one recalls Kahn’s respect for the building’s wishes. Given this site and these needs, this is the best “order” for this museum, beautiful in its honesty and simplicity. The visitor to the Kimbell will be treated to a grand, not pretentious, entrance; he will get, if he comes for a special show or lecture, instant access to his goal; he will be given a constant reference—the “spine” corridor—and will not get lost; he will, if he goes to the permanent collection, experience changes in motif—wide to narrow, interior to exterior—within a consistency; and, wonderfully, he will be able to traverse the entire public level of the museum without leaving street level. The Kimbell employee, on the other hand, will be able to grease the wheels (a good museum is both beehive and morgue) in shelter from public awareness.

The concrete vault construction covering the entire museum is the most valuable particular. Since the vaults are beams, self-supporting, they require only columns, not walls, for support. Thus the galleries can be unpartitioned, continuously open for a run of as many as six vaults. As Kahnputs it, “The order of the span is not the order of the enclosure.” The columns, however, can be used as fixing points for temporary transverse panels for exhibition purposes. Because of the vaulted roof, the panels can go no higher than the tops of the columns (twelve feet), giving the viewer a continuity of space that Kahn wanted in the Yale Gallery, but did not get (due to too tall partitions). The vaults are separated by eight foot sections; these gutters (they drain off rainwater) also contain the “servants”: wiring, air conditioning, etc. A partial elevation reveals, at floor level, left to right: a two-foot thick column whose right hand edge, at top, coincides with the root of a vault, an interval, another two-foot column whose left-hand edge, at top, coincides with the root of another vault (the exterior of the interval is the gutter). The vault rises another twelve feet from the columns, giving an overall height of 24 feet—magnificent scale made human by the separation of exhibition wall height (twelve feet, consistent with the more intimate scale of the Kimbell’s traditional art) and ceiling height. The vault construction bears out Kahn’s feeling that a great architectural “event” took place when walls “yielded” to columns.

Since the permanent collection is relatively small, and still will be at opening day, that gallery can be partially closed off by sealing off, say, the last two vault rows with a temporary lateral wall; this will limit the interior scale to the works available, but will not change the spectator’s awareness of the form of the building. With. a small show (in number or size of works), the same device can be employed in the temporary exhibitions gallery. (One of the questions arising from Kahn’s doing the museum was: how would Louis Kahn, notorious “fixer” of spaces, deal with a building that seemingly cried for an International Stylist’s “universal“ space? Kahn has walked the tightrope; the Kimbell is both fixed and flexible.)

In the “Construction” phase of the Kimbell Museum, Kahn has provided an ingenious lighting device which, if it works, should in its own quiet manner supersede the Guggenheim ramp as a singular museum feature. (Much of the ramp’s fame comes from a negative defense: how little damage it really does to pictures on exhibit. Kahn’s device is a positive advance in seeing the pictures themselves.) Kahn has provided that every public area in the museum have natural light (“No space is worthy unless it receives natural light,” he says.) Each vault has a two-foot slit, covered with plexiglass, running its entire length; from the peak of the vault will hang, in joined sections, specially manufactured, curved one-way glass.18 The glass, curved roughly parallel to the vault, will be reflective on the side facing the plexiglass and transparent from the spectator’s view. The glass will run, roughly as wide as the slit, the entire length of the vault, with these results: natural light entering through the plexiglass will be reflected toward the vault’s very light concrete interior surface (with the plexiglass and the curved glass filtering out most of the harmful radiation beforehand). Reflected from the vault, light, diffused and effective, will illuminate the museum’s galleries. Because a certain percentage of light penetrates the one-way mirrored glass, the spectator will see a silvery band of light overhead. Where needed, artificial lighting devices will be suspended from the natural lighting device, with the possibility that a photosensitive mechanism will correlate artificial and natural light at a constant level of total illumination. In addition, walls of the light wells in the permanent collection-operations area will be glassed above column level. Brown feels that the combination of the slit device and the light wells will assure that “there won’t be anywhere in the museum where the spectator doesn’t experience the change of natural light.” The light wells vary in depth from street level court, to ground level court, a further variant.

For climatic, security, and esthetic reasons, the side exterior walls of the museum are in stone, in large sections. (Kahn says, “The stone can be cut big, so we’ll use it big.”) This provides an interesting comparison with the neighboring Carter where the Texas fossil stone reads as a veneer rather than an integral part of the construction. Stairways from the street level of the connector leading to the sculpture gardens are also in stone. The shipping and receiving dock runs the entire width of the rear of the building, a museum crew’s dream; the psychological effect of the entrance stages (porch front door temporary exhibition bookstore permanent collection) is one of gently mounting intensity, a director’s ideal. The final embellishment, in terms of this report, is the auditorium kiosk, capable of 360-degree motion picture or slide projection. It has been included with mixed media in mind, though Kahn does not take readily to what he calls “Mod” (a catch-all of psychedelic and Pop art); Kahn’s fixed principles are, ultimately, democratic: “We cannot dictate in a way that doesn’t allow circumstances to have their play. ‘Mod’ is a phenomenon; you or I may not like it, but if we don’t make room for the other guy, we’re the ones who are wrong.”

There are still problems to be worked out in the Kimbell. Brown wants a wider connector to hold the bookstore (Kahn believes that particular problems like the bookstore are the real tests of the original concept; if he can’t fit it in, perhaps the whole building should be reworked); Kahn is thinking of an exterior wall to enclose parking, increase security, and ruin the view of the building; and the whole building is being moved back 30 degrees on the site (thus eliminating a back porch above the loading dock). The building will survive, though, and Fort Worth, capital of west Texas, will emerge with a great museum and a good museum complex.

Peter Plagens



1. Scully, Vincent J., Jr. Louis Kahn, George Brazillier, New York, 1962.

2. I should like at this point to acknowledge the collaboration of Mr. Howard Smagula, whose photography, research and knowledge of Kahn’s work contributed as much to the preparation of this article as I did.

3. Kimbell Museum of Art, Pre-Architectural Program Statement, June 1, 1966, p. 1.

4. Brawne, Michael, The New Museum, Praeger, New York, 1966, p. 8. Relevant facts drawn from this summary of museum history might include: 1) that museums, until the 15th century, were religious institutions, 2) the first museum resulted from Pope Sixtus IV’s opening the Capitoline Collection to public view, 3) that a museum stems from a Western idea about “public” art, 4) that the first American museum was a room at Harvard, ca. 1750, called the “Repository of Curiosities.”

5. Eliot, Alexander, “Notes Toward an Ideal Museum” Art in America, Spring 1960, p. 78.

6. Messer, Thomas, “Past and Future” Art in America, June, 1965, p. 26.

7. Blake, Peter, “How the Museum Works” Art in America, No. 5, 1966, p. 27.

8. Brawne, op cit., p. 14.

9. Scully, op cit., p. 38. The summarized biography of Mr. Kahn is taken from Professor Scully’s chronology and comments by Mr. Kahn. This information is used here only as a skeleton orientation for the reader’s general information. Anyone genuinely interested in Mr. Kahn should regard Professor Scully’s book as required.

10. Komendant, August, “Komendant on Concrete” Progressive Architecture, October, 1966, p. 208.

11. “Louis Kahn in India—An Old Order at a New Scale” Architectural Forum, July, 1966, p. 40.

12. Kimbell Museum of Art, op cit., p. 1.

13. Ibid., p. 2.

14. Ibid., p. 4.

15. Kahn, Louis I., “A Statement by Louis I. Kahn” Arts and Architecture, May, 1964, p. 18.

16. op cit., Architectural Forum, July, 1966, p. 44.

17. “Architecture—Fitting and Befitting” Architectural Forum, June, 1961, p. 88.

18. The glass will be manufactured by Corning Glass Corp., and coated by the Kinney Coating Division.