Tadao Ando’s new museum at Fort Worth both learns from Kahn’s great Kimbell and copes with the scale and nature of contemporary art

Boxing with light: Tadao Ando’s new museum at Fort Worth both learns from Kahn’s great Kimbell and copes with the scale and nature of contemporary art

Roger Morant

Building next to an internationally recognized masterpiece is inevitably a daunting task, but to create a building of similar type to the great work is a challenge that few can rise to. Tadao Ando won the competition for the Fort Worth Modern Art Museum in 1997 (AR February 1998). It is part of the city’s cultural complex, set in a park in a low-density suburb of the city, just across the road from Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum, one of the greatest gallery buildings of the last century.

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The big site is flat and featureless, so Ando has transformed it by dextrous tree planting (partly to mask the car park), walls against the busiest roads, lawns and a shallow pool, or rather young lake, over which the city’s downtown makes a dramatic skyline. But as Ando remarked when he got the commission, even if the site was dull ‘the Kimbell is a mountain’. Ando’s strategy for organizing the new building is partly based on the Kimbell, with calm parallel gallery spaces, lit as far as possible by daylight and opening on to nature (in the Kahn building exquisitely planted courts, but in the Ando the much larger new park). To some extent, Ando turns his back (or at least west side) on Kahn, with a dull elevation, car park and (at ground level) service spaces. Perhaps it was impossible to address the earlier building directly, and when the planting round the car park grows the juxtaposition of the two will seem more gentle.

For all the similarities, there are very significant differences between the two buildings. Kahn’s galleries are reminiscent of Cistercian vaults in their awesome simplicity. Ando’s exhibition spaces are concrete boxes within glass ones. The heavy inner boxes are the main containers for the artworks, while the glass ones provide intermediate spaces between galleries and the lake and lawns.

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The other major difference between Ando and Kahn is that Ando (for all the size of his site) found it necessary to put his galleries on two levels. One of the reasons for this must surely be the difference in scale between much contemporary work and the paintings in the Kimbell, which contains a fundamentally private collection of works of easel and domestic scale. Fort Worth’s Modern needed larger spaces, some of double height, to accommodate really big pieces. Ando has exploited the possibilities of his two levels of galleries with sudden surprising juxtapositions of volume and scale, but the arrangement means that lower, single-height galleries must inevitably seem slightly second class because they cannot receive daylight. Upstairs galleries are top lit as in the Kimbell, either through diffusing fabric ceilings (such as the one over the stair hall) or from clerestories, which project light onto inclined cornices and then down into the spaces. In both cases, daylight is supplemented by artificial sources, but arrangements seem rather clumsy compared to the apparently effortless combination of concrete vaults and botanically curved metal reflectors of Kahn’s building.

Routes through the galleries are arranged to encourage wandering, with some openings arranged enfilade, but with occasional departures from axiality. The major public space is the double-height entrance hall which, as you go in, offers fine views over the lake, the semiprivate garden beyond and the glass boxes of the gallery spaces poking out into the water to receive the Hockney-like constantly changing dappled reflections of the water surface. To the right of the entrance is the auditorium and a cafeteria that has a terrace poking out into the lake. To the left is the information desk, from which you are directed to either the entrance of the ground floor galleries, or the stairs, where you are cleverly deflected upwards by the curve of a special ground floor gallery.

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All this is very thoughtful, and the building is pleasant and sometimes exciting to be in, while providing unassertive spaces in the concrete boxes that never overwhelm the works on display in the first hang. But it must inevitably be compared to the Kimbell, both because of its sighting and its parti. Differences are quite profound. While the Kimbell, for all its monumental qualities, is welcoming with a generous embrace, the double height of the Ando building is partly responsible for a much more formal, almost scraped Neo-Classical entrance. The entrance hall itself, for all its fine volume and views (and its dramatic bridge, which leads staff over the volume at first floor level) is both austere and rather daunting. The insistent rhythm of glazing bars dominates perception.

To me, from both inside and out, the bars seem heavy, and the proportions they describe elongated and overstretched. While not advocating planar glazing, I wonder if there couldn’t have been a less strident approach to making the glass walls, which themselves are causing some problems of insolation and glare. The relative coarseness of the glazing contrasts with the really excellent quality of the fairfaced concrete, which rivals Zumthor’s at Bregenz (AR December 1997), most unusual in the US. As in the Austrian building, the soft grey walls are an excellent backdrop to all visual art–surely the most important attribute of any gallery. Undoubtedly, Ando has made a fine museum–but on that site, it is inevitably subject to tough appraisal.

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