Fort Worth inaugurates a new temple of art—by 21st-century visionary Tadao Ando. Jim Lewis goes for a tour

Victoria Sambunaris

One of the paradoxes of contemporary architecture is that it's at once seamlessly international and necessarily of a particular place. When the trustees of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth chose Japanese architect Tadao Ando to design a new building, they picked someone whose work— austere, restrained, serene—could not be less associated with Texan qualities. But the building is ideal: a sanctuary from the heat and bright sunshine, it manages nonetheless to echo the limitless breadth of the landscape.

Ando's work is a contemplation of the most basic elements, both natural and architectural—light, water, walls, windows. In Japan, where Ando has practiced most, he has built not just the usual array of houses and corporate headquarters but chapels, churches, and temples. Most recently he designed a performance space in Milan for Giorgio Armani that serves as runway, gallery, and theater. But he is probably best known for his works in a stiller mode: the Church on the Water in Hokkaido, Japan, where a cross, visible through a plate-glass window behind the altar, rises out of an adjoining lake; or the cylindrical meditation space, a simple but subtle play of light and shadow, that he designed for UNESCO's headquarters in Paris. The Modern is somewhat grander, but still a marvel of understatement. From the front it looks deceptively nondescript, a high, long façade divided by sheets of glass, all overhung by a slab of gray concrete that acts as a roof. It could be a particularly well-proportioned corporate park.

But just inside the door, everything changes: first, a great, lofty atrium, spanned by a catwalk; and then, through the full-height windows on the other side, one of Ando's trademarks (and the museum's most striking feature), an enormous, shallow pool that laps right up against the base of the building. The pool draws together the museum's constituent parts—three huge, modular galleries on the left; the main building, offices, and a restaurant on the right; and a garden in the back—into a single, seemingly weightless whole. The structural elements are made of poured concrete, including a trio of massive but delicate Y-shaped beams that prop up the roof of the three main galleries. The walls, where they are not standard museum white, are gray. The entire structure is wrapped in an intricate scheme of walkways, stairways, passages, and promenades, with the pool slipping in and out of view. The effect is quite literally reflective, cool without being harsh, monastic without being solemn. At night the galleries seem to float on the pond like so many Japanese lanterns.

What's more, the building offers graceful solutions to the site's specific difficulties. Sunlight in Fort Worth is a formidable thing, and Ando's means of protecting delicate artworks from its effects is an ingenious and lovely series of translucent gray scrims that can be raised and lowered over the glass exterior walls. Clerestory windows in the roof also diffuse the damaging effects of direct sun while keeping the interior illuminated and airy. Most important, the scale of Ando's building, its sight lines and culs-de-sac, negotiates perfectly between the vast, flat landscapes and endless highways of northern Texas, and the intimate experience of gazing at a painting. It gently prepares you for what you are about to see.

For too long now, the architecture of new museums has been in open competition with the art inside. I'm apparently in the minority, but the Guggenheim Bilbao strikes me as a monstrosity, an oversized gewgaw—the worst kind of building to house a collection of extraordinary artifacts. By the same token, Milwaukee's new Santiago Calatrava-designed Quadracci Pavilionseems to be showing off, rather than providing visitors a space in which to contemplate what they have actually come to see: paintings, sculptures, photographs. The Modern, plainspoken yet eloquent, is quite the opposite. Every element is designed to enhance the viewer's apprehension of the art within.

As for what that art is, we'll have to wait and see, but there's reason to believe it will be very good indeed. Some years ago the Modern decided to focus on postwar art, ceding earlier work to the nearby Kimbell Art Museum;during the past five years, the museum has added to its collection regularly, deepening its previous holdings while expanding into more contemporary art. So, in addition to Abstract Expressionist canvases and iconic Minimalist sculptures, the museum's holdings include photographs by Cindy Sherman and Yasumasa Morimura and video pieces by Bruce Nauman and Bill Viola.

On the day I visited, artworks were just beginning to be pulled out for installation. Few experiences are quite as delightful as walking through a museum when paintings lie scattered throughout the galleries, unhung and in some cases still in their boxes. It reminded me that even great art is a human endeavor—an object somebody once made, not a miracle affixed to a wall. There was a gorgeous de Kooning double-nude, wrapped in protective plastic. There was a handsome black-and-white Robert Motherwell, leaning against the wall of the main atrium. There were Anselm Kiefers and a Lichtenstein, a Warhol, and an early Pollock, all waiting to take their places on the walls.

This is Cowtown in the 21st century: internationalist, confident, dignified. In fact, Fort Worth is no stranger to great architecture. Next door to the Modern is Louis Kahn's Kimbell, completed in 1972. And just down the road, the Amon Carter, built in 1961 by Philip Johnson (he returned 40 years later to add another wing). As it turns out, Ando's building couldn't have found a better home.

Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 3200 Darnell St.; 817/738-9215;

Fort Worth museums

Kimbell Art Museum One of the country's most extensive collections of European masters. A special exhibition, "Modigliani and the Artists of Montparnasse"—which includes some 60 of the Italian artist's paintings, sculptures, and works on paper—is on view February 9 through May 25. 3333 Camp Bowie Blvd.; 817/332-8451;

Amon Carter Museum Known for its wide-ranging collection of American art. Through March 23 there is a retrospective on the work of Eliot Porter, who pioneered the use of color in landscape photography. 3501 Camp Bowie Blvd.; 817/738-1933;

National Cowgirl Museum & Hall of Fame Newly opened, it's just a few blocks from the Modern, with vintage photographs, costumes, belts, buckles, and, of course, boots. 1720 Gendy St.; 817/336-4475;

DON'T MISS To get a sense of why Fort Worth is called Cowtown, see the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo at the Will Rogers Memorial Center (3401 W. Lancaster Ave.; 817/871-8150), from January 11 through February 3.