Exterior Rythm
Exterior View of the Kimbell Art Museum

The Kimbell Art Museum, designed by Louis I. Kahn in 1972, is widely regarded as one of the modern era’s outstanding architectural achievements. Kahn created a building in which “light is the theme.” Natural light enters through narrow plexiglass skylights along the top of cycloid barrel vaults. It is diffused by wing-shaped pierced-aluminum reflectors that hang below, giving a silvery gleam to the vault surfaces’ smooth concrete and providing a perfect, subtly fluctuating illumination for the works of art.

Kimbell Art Museum Technical Information

The museum has as many moods as there are moments in time, and never… will there be a single day like the other.

– Louis Kahn

Kimbell Art Museum Photographs

Kimbell’s Portico | © Nic Lehoux
Kimbell’s Entrance | © Ezra Stoller
Kimbell’s Interior Stairs | © Ezra Stoller
Kimbell’s Interior Galleries | © Richard Anderson
Kimbell’s Interior Galleries | © Richard Anderson
Kimbell’s Interior Galleries | © Richard Anderson
Kimbell’s Interior Galleries | © Richard Anderson
Museum Interior | © Richard Anderson

Text from the Kimbell Art Museum Foundation

The building was commissioned in 1966 by the Board of Directors of the Kimbell Art Foundation, working closely with Kimbell’s first director, Richard F. (Ric) Brown, who enthusiastically supported his appointment.

Light at the Kimbell

The building’s main (west) facade consists of three 100-foot bays, each fronted by an open, barrel-vaulted portico, with the central entrance bay recessed and glazed. The porches express on the exterior the light-filled vaulted spaces that are the defining feature of the interior, which are five deep behind each of the side porticos and three deep behind the central one.

Additionally, three courtyards punctuate the interior space. Though thoroughly modern in its lack of ornament or revivalist detail, the building suggests the grand arches and vaults of Roman architecture, a source of inspiration that Kahn himself acknowledged. The principal materials are concrete, travertine, and white oak.

The Structure of the Museum

Vault Construction Details | Credit: Louis Kahn

One of the architect’s fundamental tasks is formulating the structure, or arrangement of forms, that the building will assume. Each architect has an individual approach to developing that initial concept. Kahn is often quoted as first asking, “What does this building want to be?” He believed that the structure’s essence started with the room and thinking about how that space would be used and how it should feel. From that point, the building evolved as a “family of rooms” with a simple plan based on classical proportions, repetition, and variation.

In the Kimbell case, director Richard Brown provided an initial list of essential considerations for generating ideas for the structure. In that “Pre-Architectural Program,” Brown explicitly stated that “natural light should play a vital part in illumination.” This stipulation, along with Kahn’s keen interest in using natural light, resulted in Kahn’s early concept of a room with a vaulted ceiling that would allow natural light to enter the space from above. The vault also appealed to Kahn’s admiration for ancient structures—from Roman arches and storage warehouses to Egyptian granaries.

Kahn determined the vault’s exact shape through his collaboration with a structural engineer, Dr. August E. Komendant. Unlike semicircular vaults, the cycloid vault has gently rising sides that give the impression of monumentality without overpowering the visitor. By mathematical definition, the cycloid is the curve traced by a point on a circle’s circumference that rolls on a straight line without slipping. This geometric form can support its weight and has been likened to an eggshell for its ability to withstand heavy pressure.

Each vault’s weight is directed at the Kimbell through four corner columns measuring two square feet. Unlike classical precedents, Kahn’s vaults are interrupted at the top by skylights and require concrete struts that connect the shells at ten-foot intervals. Additionally, Kahn and his engineers placed long steel cables inside along the length of each vault. After the concrete had hardened for a week, hydraulic jacks tightened the cables to create a post-tensioning system that distributes and supports the roof’s weight—similar to a suspension bridge.

Like classical buildings (such as the Parthenon), Kimbell’s structure is based on a consistent mathematical model. The basic plan comprises sixteen cycloid vaults (100 x 20 feet) arranged in three parallel units of six, four, and six in the Kimbell. Other elements are based on a ratio of 20 to 10. For example, wood sections measure 20 feet on the floor, and travertine sections are 10 feet. The building is based on these “rules” of logic, enabling the visitor to follow and “read” the structure easily.

Although the structure is based on a simple plan of unadorned, repeated forms, Kahn also introduced variations on those primary forms and “themes.” The porticos at the Kimbell’s entrance on the west side of the building first introduce the vault to the approaching visitor and demonstrate the form’s versatility. Visitors within the Museum see vaults covering the galleries, an auditorium, and the Buffet Restaurant. Kahn also varied the size of the courtyards. The North courtyard is 40 square feet, while the South patio is 20 square feet.

The “rooms” were designed to relate to the visitor personally to enhance their experience of the artworks on view. Space was designed to be as flexible as possible within the confines of the vaulted areas. Moveable walls can be attached to the soffits (the underside joint between arches) in various configurations to best suit the Museum’s display needs.

Materials

The Kimbell Museum during construction

To ensure a structure will stand the test of time, architects choose strong and durable materials pleasing to the eye. Kahn preferred simple forms and natural materials. To achieve a sense of serenity and elegance in the Kimbell, Kahn selected materials that complemented each other in tone and surface: travertine, concrete, white oak, metal, and glass. Simple and unadorned, each of these materials shows its innate character by its texture variation.

Concrete, according to Kahn, was “a noble material if used nobly.” In revolutionizing the modern use of materials, Kahn viewed concrete as an aesthetic and structural choice. In Kimbell’s galleries, concrete vaults shimmer with light to create a subtle luminosity that Kahn compared to a “silvery powdered moth’s wing.” Reinforced concrete also supports the structure’s weight through vaults, walls, and piers. Creating the right look for the concrete was a matter of profound importance to Kahn, who went to great lengths to select the proper color (soft gray with lavender tones) determined by the mixture of sand and cement.

Numerous wall tests were poured and allowed to cure in the Texas sun until they found the suitable surface qualities and the perfect match for the travertine’s soft tones. Kahn believed buildings should tell how they were made and that the construction process incidents should be left as a visual record. Accordingly, when they occurred, marks from plywood mold forms, bits of rubber, and air pockets remain for all to see (although the workers practiced attaining perfection). Travertine, on the other hand, acts only as “in-fill” material. Kahn even called it wallpaper. (Glass and wood are also non-weight-bearing materials in the Museum.)

The travertine used for the Kimbell was imported from Tivoli, near Rome, Italy. This material is riddled with irregularly shaped holes left by gases and pieces of vegetation trapped in hardened layers of calcium carbonate. Despite its “Swiss-cheese” texture, travertine is a durable material used since antiquity for countless buildings.

Kahn was deeply influenced by monuments and ancient ruins he studied as a student and sketched on his travels through Italy, Greece, and Egypt. In his buildings, Kahn used such materials as travertine to emulate the timeless and monolithic qualities he admired in those ancient structures. Over one million pounds of travertine sheath much of the Kimbell’s interior and exterior walls, gallery floors, porches, and stairs. These thin, rough-hewn pre-cut slabs (5/8 inches thick) were shipped from Italy in 17 boatloads over nine months. Fissures and openings were not filled. Every attempt was made to retain the material’s natural appearance.

Lead was selected for the roof cover for its color, dull sheen, and discreet, natural appearance. Because this soft metal ages quickly, Kahn believed it would look consistent with the travertine and concrete. In keeping with his palette of warm and cold tonal harmonies, Kahn also selected white oak for the gallery floors, doors, and cabinetry; anodized aluminum (a light-weight metal noted for its high reflectivity that has been covered with a protective oxide coating) for the soffits and reflectors; and mill-finished steel for windows and door frames, elevators, and handrails, as well as in the kitchen, conservation studio, and darkroom. Kimbell’s uniquely shaped handrails are made of folded metal because Kahn preferred emphasizing the sheet quality of the material instead of pretending that it worked like a solid material, such as wood.

Kimbell Art Museum Site Plan and Floor Plan

Site Plan | © Louis Kahn Architects, ETH Zurich University
Floor Plan | © Louis Kahn Architects, ETH Zurich University

About Louis Kahn

Louis Isadore Kahn (1901 – 1974) was an American architect based in Philadelphia whose proposals and teaching made him one of the most influential architects of the twentieth century. Kahn created a monumental and monolithic style. Primarily, his massive buildings do not hide their weight, materials, or how they are assembled.

Full Bio of Louis KahnWorks of Louis Kahn

  1. Structural Engineer: August E. Komendant
  2. Mechanical/Electrical Engineer: Cowan, Love & Jackson, Inc.
  3. Landscape Architect: George E. Patton, Inc.
  4. Project Architect: Marshall Meyers
Cite this article: "Kimbell Art Museum in Texas / Louis Kahn" in ArchEyes, February 19, 2020, https://archeyes.com/kimbell-art-museum-louis-kahn/.