Nov 7, 201310:45 AMPoint of View

Light Catcher

Light Catcher

South elevation, Renzo Piano Pavilion, with Louis Kahn Builing to the right

Courtesy Paul Clemence

(page 1 of 3)

Louis Kahn famously said: “No space, architecturally, is a space unless it has natural light.” Context, structural systems, materials, attention to program, sustainability, response to the elements, human scale are aspects all good architects have in mind when designing. But it’s the more intangible, poetic detail that brings the design to life: Light is a major factor in determining the success of a building.

In Fort Worth, Texas, the new addition to Kahn’s landmark Kimbell Art Museum by the Renzo Piano Building Workshop (RPBW) shows us the abiding relevance of Kahn’s statement. It opens on November 27 and will be known as the Renzo Piano Pavilion; it’s a masterful orchestration of sunlight that enters spaces, at once efficient and inspiring.

A unique institution with a well defined profile and mission, the Kimbell needed more space to show its permanent collection and be able to hold special exhibits. The new Renzo Piano Pavilion, sits 65 yards west of Kahn’s original; that move re-orients the flow of the existing structure to what was Kahn original intention for the tree lined courtyard to be the main access to the museum. Adding about 101,100 square feet to the existing 120,000 feet of the original building, the Piano gives the museum spaces for educational programs and a state of the art auditorium, in addition to more room for art.

View through main lobby from education rooms area

The architecture of the Renzo Piano Pavilion is a relatively simple design. Its vast spaces are enclosed in concrete, glass, and wood. It takes many respectful clues from the Kahn building, including creating a similar volume configuration and proportions, an affinity to the original materials--both structures a love song to the beauty of concrete. But what the two buildings really have in common is the awareness that light be used wisely for the best effect and without the design becoming a distracting light show.

“They are both great manipulators of light,” says Ultan Guilfoyle, filmmaker and writer. “Kahn was among the first modernists who really understood the importance of using natural light for viewing art and how to apply it in a poetic and controlled way. And Piano thinks of light in his buildings as a cinematographer would in a film, thinking not just about what would be most efficient but also most welcoming and inspiring to its users.”

When I ask Guilfoyle how he sees the difference between the two buildings, he tells me, “In Kahn’s building, the light that comes in from the ceiling’s light reflectors reaches the concrete vault and creates a silvery light that is very beautiful and flattering to the art work (but cold on humans). Piano takes the light color control to another level, first filtering it through a louvered roof and a diffusing scrim controlling its intensity, but then also controlling the quality of light by adjusting its temperature, thinking of the spatial quality the light’s color temperature will enable. So in the new building, the light bounces off the exposed Douglas fir beams whose natural redness is lightened by a milky wash. Piano uses the same white oak floor that Kahn used, but it is a shade darker. These surfaces create a reflecting light that is as gentle on the art as it is comforting, welcoming to the museum-goer.”

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