Ando’s Modern Art Museum unveiled in Fort Worth, Texas

Legend. In Fort Worth, Texas, the word carries popular images of the West, ne’er-do-wells Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid blazing through town like burning tumbleweeds in a dry season. Those fires burned out long ago and from the ashes sprung a thriving metropolis of 1.5 million (the rejuvenated downtown is named Sundance Square).

For the city’s latest project, a new building for the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, enter architect Tadao Ando – the man in charge of the Clark Art Institute’s new wing – perhaps the best individual to balance serenity within the town’s legendary roughness.

You sense this balance in the concrete walls. Internationally touted for his production of impeccably smooth concrete forms, the attention that Ando demands from his workmen has developed its own story. The story passes of the architect overseeing the pouring of the concrete for his walls one day. He spots a construction worker carelessly toss a cigarette into the drying concrete, but before the cigarette is out the construction worker is on the ground, the victim of a cross from the former amateur boxer – the 61-year-old Ando.

Fact? Who knows? Some say the story refers to a project years ago in Japan (Ando works primarily out of Osaka). In a press conference I attended in November, Ando expressed his gratitude and praise to the Museum’s construction team, adding that their performance ended any doubts he had about the potential of American craftsmanship.

The concrete is perfect. It’s palpable.

When you get out of your car, you know exactly where you’re headed, immediately sucked in by a recessed curtain wall of glass and steel, in the center of the southern façade facing the visitor’s parking lot. As you approach, the closer you come to the entrance, the more transparent the glass becomes until you see across the pond (with its floating reflection of the three galleries, each partially extended into the water), your view finally stopping at a concrete wall behind a landscaped grass hill.

The wall ends your gaze and forces you to look up. Now – having entered – your eye goes directly to a catwalk that extends across the length of an expansive room, about 18 feet above the floor. The catwalk moves the eye horizontally across the room along a new, higher spatial plane. From there, galleries are to your left with offices, auditorium and cafeteria to your right. The entire experience is surprising due to the vastness of the interior space that was hidden from the outside – an unexpected blow. Enhancing this synthesis of form and function is the inspiring saturation of natural light.

Like concrete, the masterful manipulation of light is another trademark of Ando. At the Modern, with Louis Kahn’s innovative work in light for the Kimbell Museum literally across the street, Ando gracefully accepts the challenge of light play. The galleries on the second floor alternate in a 24-40-24-40 feet rhythm in regards to length.

In the shorter galleries Ando arranges a reflective light system similar to that of the Kimbell. If you look up at the ceiling in the center of these shorter galleries, it drops about two feet down, three feet away from the wall. This allows for clerestory screens to permit light to enter horizontally. In the space between the wall and the ceiling, the wall meets the ceiling at an angle, causing the light to be reflected down to the gallery.

The longer galleries use a system of diffusive light. Here direct light is allowed to come in from above through a system of vinyl panels. Because of the strength of the Texan sun, a special dot matrix diffusion system was specially designed to diffuse the natural light down to five percent of its natural strength. The effect gives a slightly different air to these galleries. Call it one of the clearest examples of Ando wrestling with Kahn, paying homage, yet resisting duplication by combining ingenuity with modern technological advances.

The end result, the highest praise for the project: the art looks fantastic. Hats off to the Board of Directors: Director Marla Price and Chief Curator Michael Auping for not only bringing Ando to Texas and activating his vision, but also for committing themselves to an equally bold campaign that acquired many new impressive works for the permanent collection.

Additions such as works from Anselm Kiefer, Sean Scully, Robert Motherwell and the 65-foot, 230-ton Richard Serra sculpture “Vortex,” a twisting, soaring beacon rising from the southwest corner of the site provide the vertical yin to the building’s horizontal yang. Furthermore, they show that the purpose of the project is not to simply build a great house for art, but also to ensure tenants of equal measure.

Considering the great actualization of this design in Fort Worth, it seems that the Williams community will find Ando the right man for the job designing the new Clark Art Institute. His aim is to create spaces and landscapes that foster contemplation and serenity (though it is limiting to say all spaces are ethereal, there are dark spaces in his buildings too), a sanctuary of sorts from the modern condition.

His ideas are carefully executed for the specific site, community, and history. Such efforts seem to be losing ground in today’s world of museum design, with its plethora of postcard facades and correlating de-emphasis of the art found inside. Ando’s work marks a new beginning in museum design.

Now, is he the stuff of legend? Well, the story’s not over yet, is it?