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PRINT September 2002

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the new Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

To us snotty east coast aesthetes, the designation “Texas’s oldest art museum” might have a ring equivalent to “Montana’s premiere mime troupe.” But hold on; the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth (also known by the unfortunate acronym MAMFW, or “mam-fwuh”) was founded as the Fort Worth Public Library and Art Gallery way back in 1892, decades before many larger cities got their own robber-baron palaces turned public showplaces. A mere dozen years later, the institution made its first purchase for the permanent collection: Approaching Storm, 1875, by George Inness. Not bad. By 1954, the museum (by then called the Fort Worth Art Center) had relocated to a Herbert Bayer–designed building in the city’s official Cultural District. Again not bad, especially for a city doubly cursed with the epithet “Cowtown” and the lingering, not so subliminal oppression wreaked by the glamorous televised existence of a metropolis a mere thirty-five miles to the east.

Come December 14—on a Cultural District site opposite Louis Kahn’s perfect little Kimbell Art Museum, near an Amon Carter Museum of western art that Philip Johnson can’t quite seem to get right no matter how many times he rejiggers it, and not too far from (we kid you not) the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame—a grand new MAMFW will open to the public. The building is the result of a competition launched in 1996 that brought six international architects and their proposals to Fort Worth. (It’s a given these days that no new museum of any consequence can be designed by an architect who lives within five hundred miles of it.) What MAMFW wanted, says chief curator Michael Auping—whose art history master’s degree is in architecture, albeit the ancient Mexican variety—was definitely not an “explosive icon as an advertising signifier from the outside, and then on the inside all pop-pop-fizz-fizz where your eyes aren’t allowed to rest.”

So in 1997 Japan’s Pritzker Prize winner Tadao Ando, 61, known for his quietly elegant, understated edifices, was chosen as the architect. Ando purportedly discovered his vocation when, as a teenager, he saw a volume on Le Corbusier for sale in a used-book shop in Osaka and saved up for weeks to buy it. But he decided to apprentice with a carpenter instead of an architect, and a sensitive austerity—perhaps derived from his hands-on experience with wood—has been the trademark of his work. Ando has said that his solution to the architect’s perennial task of reconciling the fixed space of a building, what goes on inside it, and the building’s social context is “my independent architectural theory ordered on the basis of a geometry of simple forms, my own ideas of life, and my emotions as a Japanese.”

Construction of the new MAMFW began three years ago, on eleven landscaped acres, where the plan is to house the museum’s 2,400 works of “significant” modern and contemporary art in 53,000 square feet of exhibition space (making MAMFW number two in the country for twentieth-century art, behind the Museum of Modern Art in New York, now closed for tripling its space). Perhaps typical of the current crop of new museums, auditorium and café seating capacity will be about equal (250) in Fort Worth. As for the galleries, Auping says, “A lot of architects think that the big ‘boat’ gallery at the Guggenheim Bilbao is the model. But we don’t want a gallery that makes a huge Richard Serra look like a little ribbon. We’ve tried to get out of that horse race.” Indeed, from the model and (for this writer) a mid-project visit to the construction site, the exhibition spaces look like they’ll be cruiserweight rather than heavyweight: large but still somewhat intimate, suitable for object art if perhaps a bit inadequate for the kind of vast video installations today’s artists go in for. “Well, we are a painting and sculpture museum,” says Auping.

The primary feature of the new MAMFW—its version of Bilbao’s twisting titanium or Milwaukee’s pterodactyl-like brise-soleil by Santiago Calatrava—is, however, Ando’s handling of concrete throughout. Ando, who numbers Kahn among his idols, is famous for getting the material to look precisely like finished stone or steel. He’s been known to have his form molds varnished to get wall surfaces suitably silky. When it works, it’s wonderful, able (as one critic remarked about Ando’s boutique Pulitzer Foundation museum in St. Louis, which opened last year) to “soften the defensive posture of the outer walls.” There was, however, some question as to whether Texas concrete craftsmen were up to Japanese standards. MAMFW officials, setting the bar high, demolished and recast one slightly imperfect wall with no prompting from the architect and at a cost of $90,000, and there’s a story going around that Ando (a former amateur boxer) had to clobber one worker who stubbed out a cigarette on a freshly minted surface. It’s not just the forty-foot-high concrete exterior walls on simply configured units (two long blocks, two short blocks, all parallel and justified at one end), however, that have to do all the beautification labor. The building’s concrete perimeter will soon be sheathed in glass walls. At night its glowing edifice will be mirrored in a vast reflecting pool. If everything goes according to design, Texas’s oldest art museum will have turned itself into the most elegant museum in the entire country. Nope, not bad at all.

Peter Plagens is a contributing editor of Artforum.