South view, Renzo Piano Pavilion, October 2013, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas. Photo by Robert LaPrelle.

FORT WORTH, TEXAS - Talking to the great architect Renzo Piano at length about museums is a satisfying experience, and quite a commitment. He’s designed a lot of them – as discussed in my recent New York Times piece, he’s done more than any other architect, as far as anyone knows.

Piano is Italian, of course, and that means he likes to talk, and can do it well. Over the course of two 90-minute conversations in his office, we spoke about his long museum career, 25 projects and counting.

One of the more interesting digressions we had was about the “white box” approach to museums and galleries. There’s a popular perception that spaces for art must be neutral, to let the works do the talking.

Nonsense, Piano told me: “Neutral is dead. You cannot make a neutral concert hall – you kill music. You can’t make a neutral space for art, you kill art.” Piano frequently compares his sensitive designs for concert spaces with his museum work. Like a well-rounded European, he toggles between the arts with ease, and has taken lessons from all of them, applied liberally to the others.

Auditorium, Renzo Piano Pavilion, September 2013, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas. Photo by Robert Polidori.

At his latest project, a major addition to the Kimbell Museum of Art in Fort Worth that opens November 25, he has gone further than ever before in proving his position on neutrality. The interior walls of his building are a ravishing, warm, specially designed concrete, something he has never used before for hanging art. A daring move in some ways, given that the material has humble associations and that the Kimbell is known for its collection of ancient treasures and Old Masters.

The concrete itself was designed by a Venice–based company with intense oversight from Piano and his colleagues – rarely has one material choice undergone such discussion and study. As it happens, Piano is the son of a builder who used to pour concrete, and he often refers to himself as a builder, taking great pride in the engineering component of architecture, not just its aesthetic flair.

So this material for the Kimbell exists at that perfect intersection of science and art, right where Piano likes to be. He promised me one thing about the addition when it opens: “You will fall in love with this concrete.”


Tags:Fort Worth, Museums