“Close enough for a conversation, not too close and not too far away,” remarked architect Renzo Piano, when describing the distance from the Kimbell’s new Renzo Piano Pavilion to the Louis Kahn Building. Piano’s structure, made of glass, concrete, and wood and surrounded by elms and red oaks, stands as an expression of simplicity and lightness some 65 yards to the west of Kahn’s vaulted, luminous museum landmark of 1972.
Piano’s low-slung, colonnaded pavilion with overhanging eaves graciously acknowledges Kahn’s museum building by way of its kindred height, emphasis on natural light, and use of concrete as a primary material. The positioning of the pavilion on the site focuses attention on the west facade of the Kahn Building, which Kahn considered to be the main entrance.
The pavilion is made up of two sections connected by a glass passageway. The front, or easternmost, section conveys an impression of weightlessness: a glass roof system seems to float high above wooden beams and concrete posts. Sleek, square concrete columns flank the central, recessed glass entrance and wrap around three sides of the building. The tripartite facade articulates the interior, with a spacious entrance lobby and large galleries to the north and south.
Tucked under a green roof, the Piano Pavilion’s western section contains a gallery for light-sensitive works of art, three education studios, a large library with reading areas, and an auditorium with superior acoustics for music. The latter, located below ground level, is a design centerpiece: its raked seating faces the stage and the dramatic backdrop of a light well animated by shifting patterns of natural light.
Walls made of soft, light gray concrete unlike any concrete ever produced in the United States appear throughout the Piano Pavilion’s exterior and interior. Tie holes appear in the concrete walls at only 30-foot intervals, which is unusual for architectural concrete. The resulting uninterrupted wall surfaces are ideal for the display of works of art.
Twenty-nine pairs of wood roof beams, weighing a total of 435 tons, span the interior and extend to the exterior beneath the overhanging canopy. In addition to providing support for the roof system, the 100-foot-long beams of laminated Douglas fir add visual weight and warmth within largely continuous, changeable, and airy interiors.
Glass lends transparency and lightness to the pavilion. In addition to the glass roof, natural light fills the north and south galleries through glazed walls, offering passersby a glimpse into the art-filled areas. From the pavilion’s entrance, five layers of glass provide a view through the lobby and garden separating the two sections of the pavilion, into the pavilion’s rear section with the auditorium, and out onto the light well that spans the length of the west section of the building.
A defining feature of the pavilion is one of Piano’s most elaborately engineered roof systems, which appears to float above the massive, coupled wood beams. The roof includes a layer of high-efficiency fritted glass supporting mechanical aluminum louvers with built-in photovoltaic cells. The ceiling glows as sunlight filters through the glass roof down through soft, silk-like scrims. Energy-efficient lighting with incorporated LED technology enhances the natural light provided by the roof.
As always in his museum designs, Piano continues to experiment with ways to animate and direct natural light, here primarily with the complex roof system. He also channels light and provides unexpected sight lines by slanting some of the building’s walls, including the wall of the deep concrete light well that provides a spectacular backdrop to the stage in the 289-seat auditorium. Canted walls also channel light in two sets of stairwells connecting the upper and lower levels: one leading from the pavilion’s entrance to the underground garage, and the other descending from the upper level to the lower auditorium entrance.
In the galleries, Piano has developed what is referred to as a “breathing floor,” in which the entire floor functions as a vent. The floorboards, made of white oak, have been laid with small gaps, allowing low-velocity air to flow freely through the floor. A subtle pattern in the arrangement of the floorboards echoes the wooden beams of the roof above, and the floor’s warm color complements the cool concrete walls.
The moveable gallery walls are specially designed to maintain the tranquility of the space and a feeling of weightlessness. They are unusually thin—10 ½ inches thick—and secured only to the floor, yet they can carry a weight of up to 1200 pounds. Light spills beneath them, making the innovative structures appear to float.
Using only half the amount of energy per square foot required by the Kahn Building, the new Piano Pavilion is highly energy efficient. Much of the structure is below ground level; only a third is above ground and requires full cooling and heating power. Even these spaces—comprised largely of the lobby and the north and south galleries—will benefit from the overhanging glass roof, which supports a system of photovoltaic panels that shade direct sun and generate enough power to offset up to 20 percent of the carbon produced by the building’s annual operations. In addition, 450-foot-deep geothermal wells—36 in all—help to air condition the building by taking advantage of the natural heating and cooling provided by the earth. Other features, including lighting, air-conditioning systems, and fixtures, also contribute to the building’s energy efficiency.
Contemporary furniture in neutral tones of tan and white are accompanied by cherry-red accents, all designed by the Herman Miller Company, Geiger International, and Knoll. The auditorium is outfitted with rich red seats by the Italian design firm Poltrona Frau.
Placing the parking garage underground and creating a park-like green on top of the western section of the pavilion assisted in maintaining as much green space on the site as possible. On the three and a half acres of green recreation area, some 320 new trees have been planted, including 47 30-foot-high elms between the two buildings that re-establish the previous planting. Louis Kahn’s conception for the site’s landscaping is retained as much as possible throughout the grounds, particularly in the iconic elements outside his building’s west entrance: the yaupon grove and the allée running between the two museum buildings.