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Episode 21

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Back in march I promised that new episodes of "The Works" were coming soon.

"Soon" is a relative term and although I thought I was going to have this one ready to go the spring it turns out it has taken me until the middle of September. Better late than never, I suppose.

At any rate, on this episode of the podcast we talk about domes - specifically planetarium domes and the magic that occurs under them.

As always, please talk a moment to listen to the story and if you like what you hear, feel listen to the other episodes or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes where you can also rate the show and leave a comment.

It Never Feels Good To Say, "I Told You So"

 This is the lawn that once existed in front of the Kimbell Art Museum

This is the lawn that once existed in front of the Kimbell Art Museum

I was in Fort Worth over the weekend to attend a lecture from my friend and mentor Max Levy. He was speaking at the Kimbell Art Museum and the visit also afforded me the opportunity to visit the museum as well as its neighboring extension, the so-called "Piano Pavilion" that was completed in 2013. As far as art museums go the addition is respectable enough. It clearly cost a fortune but I couldn't help but feel saddened by its existence. This sentiment was not unexpected. 

Back in 2011 I wrote an essay for called "Requiem For A Lawn". in which I talked about the addition before it was built and what I feared would be lost once it was finished. Alas, my predictions proved prescient.

Below is the text of that essay that appeared in the July/August issue of Texas Architect:

I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have grown up a short drive from the Kimbell Art Museum. While it might be a bit of a stretch to say that Louis Kahn’s vaulted masterpiece was the reason I decided to become an architect, it certainly did provide a compelling example of what great architecture could be.

As I learned more about the Kimbell in architecture school, I began parking not in the sunken eastern lot but on the street between Kahn’s building and the Amon Carter Museum. This western approach was the one originally envisioned as the main entry and I felt like it was a little secret between Kahn, the building, and me. A key part of this sequence was crossing the broad, tree-lined meadow that served as the Kimbell’s front lawn for almost 40 years.

I have come to appreciate this lawn as an important foil to the massive and dignified Kimbell Art Museum. While the tree lined lawn was originally planted as a mall centered on the landmark tower of the neighboring Will Rogers Memorial Center, the integration of the greenspace into the overall design of the Kimbell effectively wove the new building harmoniously into its existing urban context.

Perhaps more important, Kahn’s plan preserved an open field of activity for the city of Fort Worth. In my years of crossing it as I made my way to the museum I have seen kids flying kites and dogs catching Frisbees. I have seen families engaged in picnics and fly-fishermen practicing their cast. I have seen the Kimbell’s front lawn play host to several games of touch football and at least one impromptu cricket match.

*          *          *

In 2007, the Renzo Piano Building Workshop was announced as the architect for a significant addition to the Kimbell. This would be the second attempt to expand the museum: a 1989 proposal by Romaldo Giurgola was ultimately abandoned after fierce public outcry that its approach would severely alter the integrity of Kahn’s original structure. While certainly flawed, Giurgola’s scheme notably left the western lawn untouched.

As vociferous as the opposition was 31 years ago, it is surprising how little reaction Piano’s more recent effort has generated. Perhaps this is due to the fact that unlike the 1989 proposal, the Kimbell itself will remain intact. This new scheme seeks to complement the original structure from a distance rather than mimic it at close range. Kahn’s near-perfect interplay of light and space, structure and material, served and servant will remain the same. Of course, the amount of gallery space will be doubled and the expanded museum will in all likelihood reap the benefits of increased attendance. That is all fitting and proper, but something irreplaceable will vanish in the bargain since Piano’s design places the new building in the middle of the Kimbell’s western lawn.

I am not suggesting that plans for the addition be scrapped (as construction has already begun it is a bit late to make that argument) but I believe it should be recognized that some of the magic that is the Kimbell will be lost.

At the risk of waxing nostalgic, I for one will miss what once was. I will miss the intimate and easily understood scale of the original Kimbell. I will miss the western lawn and the display of civic life that it nurtured. Piano’s rational is that the new building and its associated underground parking will re-orient entry into Kahn’s building, allowing most visitors to enter from the west as originally planned. Only now, rather than crossing a broad and open lawn, visitors will be merely traverse a court between two buildings. While visitors will be entering from the direction Kahn intended, the experience will be a totally different one.

At the end of last year when groundbreaking seemed imminent, I made a special trip to the Kimbell to see it one final time in its original state. It was a beautiful autumn morning and the lawn’s perimeter trees sent long shadows across the expanse of green. As it was early on a Saturday, I had the space to myself and the solitude only heightened the experience. That morning felt almost like a final parting at the end of a long relationship. Though neither of us would ever be the same afterward, we could still enjoy one another’s company one last time.

The Analog Past vs. The Digital Future

We were up in Fort Worth this Thanksgiving to spend time with my family. In order to work off some of the massive amount of calories we had ingested the day before, on Friday we decided to take the girls to the Fort Worth Science and History Museum. The girls enjoyed the trip but I came away a little disoriented.

The museum played an important role in my childhood. It was THE museum we would go to as it was only about a half-hour from our house. My brother and I attended "Museum School" there during the summer and we both have fond memories of exploring its vast and sometimes creepy collection of artifacts. The diorama of a neolithic trepanning was especially memorable / frightening: it featured 3/4 scale cave men holding down and cutting into the head skull of one of their comrades.

Good, clean family fun.

The museum underwent a major renovation in 2007. The resulting building is almost entirely new and is completely unrecognizable from the one I knew as a kid. The physical reality of the museum has no connection to its former self. The exhibits have changed significantly as well. It's now much more of a interactive "children's" museum than the "natural history" museum that I knew it to be. The museum I knew exists only in the nostalgic "Hidden Treasures: Celebrating 75 Years" exhibit on the second floor.  More interactive museums are clearly where the money is these days - there and in the oil and gas industry. The largest and most impressive exhibit was dedicated to telling the magical story of hydraulic fracking to the next generation of young Texans. 

While we were at the museum we also watched a show at the Noble Planetarium. Like many other planetariums, it has switched from an analog to a digital method of presentation (Fort Worth has a dual system that has both digital and analog capabilities, but the attendant I spoke to says they only use the newer technology). In other words, rather than seeing a field of stars projected mechanically through a "star ball" with holes cut for individual stars, several computerized LCD projectors are deployed to cast an animated image of the universe onto the planetarium dome. 

There are certainly advantages to this approach. LCD technologies have the advantage of allowing video to be projected rather than just stars. The show we watched featured Big Bird and Elmo explaining how to find the North Star. That would have been impossible in the planetarium that existed when I was a kid.

Then again, the resolution and dynamic range of LCD projects is less than their analog predecessors. Or at least I think they are. The show we watched on Friday was muddy and blurry. The shows I remember going to as a kid were bright and crisp. Or at least I remember them being that way. My memory could be flawed.

It is hard to compare what is now with what was many years ago. We tend to remember things being bigger when we were smaller. We also remember things being more impressive when our world of experiences were more limited. It can be disorienting trying to rectify these past memories with current realities. The past will always be clearer because we know how it all turned out. The future will always be muddier and blurrier because we do not.

 

In Defense of the Small Museum

 the "new" Kimbell as seen from the "old" Kimbell

the "new" Kimbell as seen from the "old" Kimbell

As I mentioned in a post a few weeks ago, I grew up about fifteen minutes from the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. Growing up in the shadow of that building certainly played a part in my decision to become an architect. It's certainly one of Kahn's best works and arguably one of the best pieces of architecture in the state. I am not alone in this belief.

That said, one of the things that was rarely talked about when praise is heaped onto the Kimbell is how perfectly scaled the museum was. Now when I talk about scale I'm not talking about the scale of the architecture - I'm talking about the museum itself. With a single large, a single medium and single small gallery, whatever was on display could be comfortably taken in over the course of a casual morning or an afternoon. This is in stark contrast to a place like the Dallas Museum of Art or MoMA whose vast exhibition spaces are so extensive that it is all but impossible to "see everything". I always leave that type of museum frustrated that I didn't see everything and tired for having tried. That was never the case at the Kimbell. I always left reinvigorated and happy. I always left inspired by the art I had seen.

Of course, I'm using the past tense when referring to the Kimbell because they expanded the museum so that now it is much larger than it was. In 2013 a separate structure designed by the Renzo Piano Building Workshop was opened on what had been an open lawn facing the original building. The new building was perfectly respectable (as most Piano buildings are) and although the loss of the lawn was unfortunate, it wasn't so noticeable from within the original building itself (see the image above).

What was noticeable was that the size of the museum had more than doubled. Now there are multiple galleries spread across two buildings. It's still nothing like The Met in terms of its vast scale but it is also no longer intimate like the Kimbell used to be.

There are economic realities that force museums like the Kimbell to expand. They are similar to the forces that cause Walmarts to get bigger, SUVS to grow larger and portions at restaurants to become obscene. Smaller museums are apparently much more difficult operate - one of my favorite small museums in Chicago, the Terra Museum, was forced to close in 2004.

And so even though I can understand the logic of the ever-expanding a museum, I can still be nostalgic for the small museum.

The Kimbell Is Forever

 image courtesy Universal Artists

image courtesy Universal Artists

In December of 1971 United Artists released the seventh James Bond film, Diamonds Are Forever. It cost $7.2 million to produce. A few months later, Louis Kahn's Kimbell Art Museum opened in Fort Worth Texas. It cost $6.5 million to build.

I'm not quite sure what to think of that or which of those two endeavors had the greatest cultural impact. I do know which one had the greater impact on me. I did, after all, decide to become an architect as opposed to a British spy.

Regional Classicism

When I was growing up in north Texas we would often take Interstate 30 into Fort Worth. The elevated highway crossed the southern part of downtown and in a questionable urban design move, separated a line of building from the rest of the rest of the central business district. These buildings (all of which were designed by Wyatt Hedrick) included the Texas and Pacific Railroad Passenger StationTexas and Pacific Railroad Warehouse and a U.S. Post Office.

As problematic as it was to have these buildings separated from the rest of the city, one unintended consequence was that as you drove past them you were able to see these buildings from a perspective you normally don't. Certain details that weren't necessarily noticeable from the ground become more prominent when your view becomes elevated. For example, if you look closely at the building's Corinthian columns, you'll notice their capitals contain Texas Longhorn and Hereford cattle.

This was not as it was in ancient Rome, but it provides a great example of how even a codified architectural style can be made local in a way that is both appropriate and compelling. 

Angel Butts

The front of Bass Performance Hall appears on the left while its rear appears on the right

I was in Fort Worth over the weekend for a conference and had the opportunity to walk around downtown a bit. I grew up near Fort Worth so I've spent a fair amount of time there, but it's changed quite a bit since then. I've changed a bit since then, too. 

There's something incredibly fulfilling about rediscovering a place you thought you knew. Fort Worth has always had a nicely scaled downtown. It has skyscrapers but somehow even they feel more humane than in other cities. And there has been considerable investment by the Bass family among others to revitalize and infill the core of the city to make it a truly vibrant place to be. Fort Worth has also always struck me as a city that is comfortable with who it is. Austin wants to a city on the west coast, Dallas wants to be a city on the east coast and Houston wants to be, well, Houston wants to be something. But Fort Worth was always wanted to be Fort Worth. It's a cowtown and it owns that fact.

But one building has always bothered me. Bass Performance Hall was built when I was still in architecture school and I remember it receiving a lot of favorable press in its day (at least in the local newspaper). Call me crazy, but I thought its front facade with its 48' tall angles with gilded trumpets projecting out over the street was, in a word, tacky. 

My feelings towards this building remain unchanged.

I think what bothers me most is that the building just seems out of character for Fort Worth. Don't get me wrong, Fort Worth has some amazing cultural institutions, many of which perform at the Bass Performance Hall. But the architecture just seems to be trying too hard. It didn't have to do that. I would have much rather seen a performance hall designed for Fort Worth than one designed for Paris (or at least Disneyland Paris).

Anyway, when I was walking by the building over the weekend I saw a part of the building I hadn't seen before - it's backside. I'm not saying it's purely functional stucco facade is better than the front - it's not an either/or proposition - but it did make me smile because I realized I was technically looking at angel butts.

That's the problem with putting a 48' tall angle on the front end of your building - eventually someone is going to see their rear end as well.