Piano's building, totaling 85,000 square feet, respects the scale of its predecessor but does not mimic its cycloid vaults.

The Kimbell Art Museum expansion project is finally moving forward. On May 27, the institution unveiled Renzo Piano's final design for a $70 million building adjacent to Louis Kahn’s masterpiece. The concrete and glass pavilion will double the museum’s gallery space while allowing it to reserve the original building for its renowned permanent collection.  

The museum first proposed an expansion 21 years ago, but it generated such a Vesuvius of critical and popular protest—too big, too intrusive, programmatically unjustified—that the idea was scrapped.

“The Kimbell has never been able to present a major exhibition and display its permanent collection at the same time,” explains director Eric Lee. “With the Piano building this becomes possible.”

The pavilion will sit on the “great lawn” to the west of the existing building, “at the right distance for a conversation, not too close and not too far away,” says Piano. A smaller structure to the rear will house studios, classrooms, library, and an auditorium for the museum’s education department. Visitors will enter through an underground parking garage and ascend by elevator and stairs to the galleries and education spaces. They can then make their way along shaded grassy paths to the original building, as Kahn had intended.

Piano’s building, totaling 85,000 square feet, respects the scale of its predecessor but does not mimic its cycloid vaults or touch it at any point, two issues that led to the angry rejection of Romaldo Giurgola’s 1989 expansion scheme. Putting brush strokes on a Picasso was the consensus view of that effort.

The museum board quietly revisited the expansion issue in 2007 and the following year chose Piano as the architect. He had worked in Kahn’s office in the 1960s and had already designed three acclaimed museums in Texas, including the Nasher Sculpture Center in neighboring Dallas. The board’s choice was enthusiastically endorsed by the Kahn family, who had denounced the Giurgola scheme as a fat-fingered violation of their father’s building.

“I doubt we could do better than Renzo,” Sue Ann Kahn said at the time. “He knows Texas; he’ll ponder the relationship of old and new. You can’t beat those odds.”

Among the “new” elements are geothermal wells, photovoltaic cells, grass roofs, and other energy-saving features. Groundbreaking is scheduled for late summer, with a grand opening in 2013.