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Kimbell addition aims to preserve Fort Worth museum's open space

FORT WORTH -- The $125 million expansion of the Kimbell Art Museum by Italian architect Renzo Piano offers something of an olive branch to critics: The design being formally unveiled today preserves the integrity of the Louis Kahn original while limiting encroachment onto the sweeping west lawn.

The new building -- a single story with an airy, transparent facade -- will feature the same proportions and scale as the original building, which opened in 1972 to international acclaim.

But almost half the new structure will be underground, with a terraced, sod roof. This area will house the auditorium, offices and a gallery that has no windows for displaying light-sensitive works. A 137-car parking garage will also be underground.

"I like the idea that the building should leave a generous place for people to come and play," Piano said recently in discussing his latest designs.

Two of the most vocal concerns aired when the addition was originally presented in late 2008 were preservation of the integrity of the Kahn design and encroachment on the green space between the Kimbell and the Amon Carter Museum to the west. Architects feared the companion building would detract from Kahn's internationally recognized design with its poured concrete walls and cycloid vaults -- the innovative shape of the five galleries.

Piano, who worked for Kahn briefly in the late 1960s, was willing to take on the plum museum commission even though it came with baggage. As he presented his almost-complete design recently, he peppered his descriptions of the $125 million project with deference, referring to Kahn as "one of my masters" and the Kimbell as "this masterpiece."

Piano has been generous in keeping the focus on the original building. His design calls for an 85,000-square-foot building that faces the existing art museum, with the two separated by a black-bottomed reflection pool. The new building will include three new galleries, a 295-seat auditorium, a large lobby, reference library and an education wing with a cafe.

And Piano has manipulated the approach so that visitors who emerge from the parking garage will see the front of the Kahn-designed Kimbell, a view rarely appreciated today, as most visitors now enter from the parking lot at the back of the building.

"I like that idea that the first thing you see when the door opens is the Kahn," Piano said. "I like that little homage to the master."

The Kimbell Art Foundation is picking up the tab and is considering a bond issue to help with the financing. The costs include $70 million for the building's construction plus an additional $55 million for architectural and consulting fees, landscaping costs, interior furnishings and construction of the parking garage.

Any trees that have to be moved during construction will be replaced, said Eric Lee, director of the Kimbell.

The final design is unresolved. Although the footprint and allocation of interior space is determined, the materials are still in flux. Piano is debating travertine versus concrete for exterior portions, and while there will be an abundance of glass walls, what he chooses to use for the supports and side walls will have a dramatic effect on the building's final look.

The roof, always a Piano signature element, will be a series of aluminum louvers that will move to shade direct sunlight and diffuse daylight. The louvers will be equipped with photovoltaic panels that should generate enough power to offset 50 percent of the building's annual carbon emissions. Overall the new structure will use one-fourth the energy consumed by the old one.

Building green says Piano "is good morally. It's a kind of duty; it's also poetically good."

Construction is slated to begin in midsummer and be completed in 2013.

GAILE ROBINSON IS THE STAR-TELEGRAM'S ART AND DESIGN CRITIC. 817-390-7113

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