The greatest work of modern architecture in Texas? That’s easy: Louis I. Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum, in Fort Worth, which just celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. In the decades since its opening, no Texas building has come close to matching its sense of the sublime.
To stand beneath the barrel-vaulted porticoes fronting the Kimbell, as shadows gradually mark time against its walls and fountains provide a liquid soundtrack, is as much a metaphysical experience as an architectural one. That special character carries over to the interiors, which manage to be at once monumental and warmly humane. Light enters through long slits at the apex of the vaulted ceilings and is then bounced off aluminum reflectors, giving the space a silvery ethereal quality. When it opened, the New York Times called it “one of those rare, wonderful buildings . . . a superb architectural experience.” That experience was not substantially affected a decade ago, when the Italian architect Renzo Piano (an employee of Kahn’s in his youth) designed an exceedingly deferential expansion.
The Kimbell is in all ways unique, a “one of one.” But it is also representative of a specific moment in Texas architecture. Beginning in the middle of the twentieth century, increasingly sophisticated (and wealthy) patrons sought to place the state’s cities on par with their more established northern rivals by turning to international architects to design their museums.
The most significant of those patrons were the Parisians turned Houstonians John and Dominique de Menil. Among the products of the Menils’ vision was the Rothko Chapel, in Houston, designed in part by Philip Johnson and completed in 1971, and two other architecturally notable structures: Johnson’s Art Museum of South Texas, in Corpus Christi, and Gunnar Birkerts’s Contemporary Arts Museum, in Houston, both of which, like the Kimbell, opened in 1972.
That legacy continues to this day, in Texas’s ever-growing list of first-rate museums. Dominique de Menil eventually commissioned Piano to design her eponymous Houston museum, just a block from the Rothko Chapel. It, too, is a masterpiece: a humane space of ethereal light.
Still, the Kimbell comes first.
This article originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Modern Architecture Meets Modern Art.” Subscribe today.