‘The Sins of Architects Are Permanent’

Robert McCarter is a professor of architecture at Washington University in St. Louis, a practicing architect and the author of a book on Louis Kahn, two on Frank Lloyd Wright, and another on Carlo Scarpa. He’s been involved with the idea of an addition to the Kimbell Art Museum, in one way or another, for 25 years now. With the opening of the Piano Pavilion in Fort Worth last week, McCarter offered us a Q+A interview centered on the selection of its site to the west, rather than the originally proposed site to the southeast. As noted below, he alludes to Frank Lloyd Wright’s assertion that “The sins of architects are permanent sins,” which we’ve abbreviated in the headline here. Today’s post is the first of three for McCarter: 

You’ve held not one, but two design studios with the Kimbell addition to the southeast at their hearts. Who participated? What was the premise? What were the results?

I should begin by saying that I have been involved, directly and indirectly, with Kahn’s Kimbell Museum and the question of an addition for some 25 years now. I was a post-professional graduate student at Columbia University in the mid-1980s, when Romaldo Giurgola, one of my thesis professors, was asked to design the first proposed addition to the Kimbell, which involved extending the vaults into the sunken landscape courts to the south and north. When it was unveiled in the late-1980s, when I was teaching at Columbia, an international protest, led by one of my other thesis professors, Kenneth Frampton, among others, resulted in the Giurgola design being rejected, I believe in 1990, following which an agreement was made with the Kimbell trustees and the Kahn family that any future addition would “not touch the original Kahn building.”

I researched and wrote my definitive monograph, Louis I. Kahn (Phaidon, 2005) from 2001-5, and since the book’s publication I have written numerous book chapters and journal articles on Kahn, as well as presenting many dozens of lectures around the world on Kahn’s works, including the Kimbell Museum, rightly considered his greatest work.

In the spring of 2007, I was asked by the Kimbell Museum staff to conduct a studio for an addition to be built on the Kimbell-owned site to the southeast of the museum, across the street from the Kimbell; the studio results to be possibly used to organize an architectural competition, or to structure the hiring of an architect for the addition. I gave the addition to the Kimbell Museum as a graduate studio at Washington University, and it was titled: “Light is the Theme: An Addition to Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum.” 

The Kimbell’s curator of architecture, Patricia Cummings Loud (a leading authority on Kahn’s museums) participated in the final jury, and a book documenting the 12 student designs were presented to the director of the Kimbell, Timothy Potts. 

Just before the conclusion of the studio, the Kimbell announced on April 5, 2007 that Renzo Piano had been selected to be the architect for the addition. The announcement stated; “The addition will comprise a separate building located across the street from the current Museum, on land acquired in 1998.” I was told that Piano had been given a copy of the booklet we prepared of the twelve Washington University student projects for the Kimbell addition studio, and I was shown a photograph of Piano in his office with the booklet on his desk.

In late 2010, when it became clear that, instead of the Kimbell-owned site to the southeast, the public park site to the west was where the addition was to be built, as a kind of “productive protest” I taught another graduate studio, in spring 2011, titled; “Alternate Reality: An Appropriate Addition to Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum.” The students were allowed to propose their additions on any site around the Kimbell with the sole exception of the park site.

The studio group visited the site in early February 2011, at which point the entire public park to the west of the Kimbell had been dug out to 25 feet deep, and the double row of 100-year-old trees destroyed. It was one of the most depressing days I can recall in my 36 years of being an architect, and it highlighted the fact that the contemporary architecture profession often seems either unwilling or unable to make new buildings that are appropriate additions, and that do not irreparably damage their contexts.

The premises of the 2011 studio were: 

First, that architectural projects should be conceived not as free-standing, self-referential objects, but as appropriate and respectful additions to pre-existing contexts. Kahn himself said that the only thing he felt he could teach his own students was to always consider “what was the appropriate thing to do” in any situation. 

Second, that the building and the landscape cannot be considered separate things, and must be designed, and added to, together. Kahn said that his design for the FDR Four Freedoms Park in NYC (recently realized) was “a room and a garden.” Like the FDR, the Kimbell Museum was designed by Kahn to be a set of vaulted rooms and a garden, approached through the garden and its trees in an experience that binds interior and exterior space together inextricably. 

Third, the primary ethical imperative of any architectural project should be to never make the place in which you build worse, and ideally to make it better, than it was before one intervened. This is informed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s pithy aphorism, which I used as the theme of the 2011 studio; “The sins of architects are permanent sins.” 

Fourth, due to the canonical stature of the Kimbell Museum as the greatest art museum of the 20th century, any proposed addition to it should be subjected to the most intense scrutiny, questioning and criticism before it is built.

The results of the studio proved, even more than the 2007 studio, that the sites to the south and southeast, being at the solid-walled “back” of the Kimbell, and in dialogue with the MoMA of Ando across the street to the north, allowed the designs for the additions considerable freedom in both ordering geometry, position and scale, as well as easily accommodating the building and the required underground parking garage without the removal of even one mature tree. 

One could imagine a gifted architect making a true masterpiece of their own on these eastern sites, without having to “battle” with Kahn, as is necessitated by the formal, symmetrical relation required on the western, park site.

Piano was repeatedly invited by the students and to attend the final jury of this studio, but he did not accept our invitation. 

Tomorrow: The consequences of change.

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