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2007 October: Museum by Steven Holl Architects (Kansas City, USA)

Too many new art museums and additions to old institutions are clamouring for attention and neglecting the experience that brings visitors back. In Kansas City, the Nelson-Atkins got it right - through meticulous planning, fundraising to endow programmes as well as to build and by working closely with Steven Holl Architects on an inspired extension to its Beaux Arts building.

Holl's loose agglomeration of volumes forms an expressive counterpoint to the orthogonal, axial, inward-looking formality of the original Beaux Arts building

Holl’s loose agglomeration of volumes forms an expressive counterpoint to the orthogonal, axial, inward-looking formality of the original Beaux Arts building

Holl has displayed his mastery of space and light throughout his three decades of practice, even as he has stumbled on several commissions, but here he has topped Kiasma, his earlier triumph in Helsinki (AR August 1998). The Bloch Building, named for its principal donor, is designed from the inside-out to intensify the engagement between visitors and specific art works. It offers a thrilling architectural promenade, stepping down a gentle slope from a soaring, multi-level entry concourse to intimate rooms at the tail. The long, skinny sequence of galleries is half buried, and they are lit from five translucent glass lanterns that shimmer by day and glow softly at night. As a fusion of art, architecture and landscape, and as an uplifting interior in a luminous shell, the Bloch is a far more useful model for its peers than headline buildings that put show ahead of utility.

Marc F. Wilson, the museum director who enlisted his board and curators to guide this project to completion, is the heir to a succession of visionaries who built and enriched Kansas City. Green parkways, exuberant fountains and grand buildings recall the prosperity and aspirations of the 1920s - the last decade of greatness for most Midwestern American cities.

Entrance plaza and reflecting pool

Entrance plaza and reflecting pool

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art was one of these bold civic gestures, conceived in the boom year of 1927 and completed in 1933 as President Roosevelt was beginning to rally a nation battered by the Great Depression. There’s no hint of that here. The massive limestone block is supremely confident, a temple of art dominating a grassy rise. Ionic porticos jut from walls incised with such inscriptions as SERAPHS SHARE WITH THEE KNOWLEDGE, BUT ART, O MAN, IS THINE ALONE. Hopelessly out of sync with present-day realities you would think, but the opposite is true. The museum has exemplary collections, ranging from ancient China to contemporary America; it enjoys scholarly and public respect, and it is open to all without charge. Nothing expresses its adventurous spirit better than the four giant shuttlecocks that Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen installed in the grounds.

The new extension appears as a series of translucent lanterns. After dark, they glow gently and magically with a soft luminance

The new extension appears as a series of translucent lanterns. After dark, they glow gently and magically with a soft luminance

In 1999, to add exhibition space and bring the museum into a new era, the board invited six architects to design an extension. Five contenders (Tadao Ando, Gigon & Guyer, Christian de Portzamparc, Carlos Jimenez, and Machado & Silvetti) designed a massive block to the rear, as the programme prescribed. Holl had a better idea, proposing a subterranean sequence of linked galleries that slide gracefully past the old museum, defining a new entry courtyard to the north and stepping 250 metres down the east side of Dan Kiley’s terraced sculpture garden. The seven light-gathering glass lanterns of his first scheme were reduced to five and reconfigured as the design was developed, but the concept remained intact. From above, these ‘lenses’, as Holl calls them, resemble quartz crystals tumbling across the greensward; from the garden they form an ethereal boundary wall, with grass-roofed links you can walk over. They seem to float free, but are linked to the east-west axis of the existing structure below ground.

The lofty, dynamic space of the entrance concourse

The lofty, dynamic space of the entrance concourse

Visitors can also enter the Bloch from the entry court, passing the cafe, and descend a ramp through the concourse. Most will park in an underground garage, lit by openings in a reflecting pool (an artwork by Walter De Maria titled One Sun/34 Moons) and enter at the lower Level. The bookstore is tucked in below the ramp, and a wall-hugging staircase leads up to a meeting room and the long wedge of the reading room. Though it contains the usual facilities, the concourse works best as a decompression chamber and social condenser. It’s a lofty, dynamic space, modelled by natural light from clerestories that bounces off the white Venetian plaster walls and grey terrazzo floor. It draws you forward to the point where you can thread your way through a succession of galleries or walk down the flanking corridor that opens up to the garden, ducking in or out as you choose. A meandering path running alongside and around the lenses, mirrors the circulation within. In its free-flowing plan, as in its immateriality, the Bloch Building is the perfect alternative to the massive, axial, inward-looking original.

“The Bloch Building is designed from the inside-out to intensify the engagement between visitors and specific art works”

‘Steven and I speak the same language,’ says Wilson, and the design was nurtured in weekly meetings of the museum’s building committee with Holl or his senior partner, Chris McVoy. Constant shifts of level and perspective keep visitors alert and focus attention on every individual piece or cluster of related works. Many were transferred from the old building and given room to breathe. Walls are subtly angled to inflect each room, and, at the top, they arch out in curved ceiling vaults to capture and diffuse light. Surfaces are impeccably finished and detailed to reinforce the concept of architecture as a dramatic but unobtrusive presence that encourages visitors to linger in each room while drawing them forward. Display cases for contemporary ceramics and a superb selection of African carvings are integrated with the building and fronted with non-reflective glass. A group of Isamu Noguchi sculptures are set into a trough of pebbles and flow out through a clear glass window to join other works in the garden. Screens swing open to change the configuration of galleries or to close off installations in progress.

Entrance concourse. Holl's cool palette of glacial crystalline glazing and white plaster is anchored by a grey terrazzo floor

Entrance concourse. Holl’s cool palette of glacial crystalline glazing and white plaster is anchored by a grey terrazzo floor

Elaborate computer programs were devised to simulate changes in natural light and these guided innovative strategies to vary the character and intensity of lighting at different seasons and times of day. In contrast to the monotonously even illumination of most contemporary art museums, light and shadow complement each other in the Bloch, and especially in rooms where photographs and other light-sensitive works are displayed. The lenses comprise planks of translucent, solar-textured and sandblasted U-profile channel glass creating a structural cavity wall that serves as a thermal barrier. Within, laminated acid-etched glass, Okalux (a mesh of fine capillary plastic) and computer-operated shades filter sunlight. Clear glass windows provide views of the sculpture garden from working and circulation areas.

Isamu Noguchi sculptures set in a trough of pebbles flow out to jon other works in the garden

Isamu Noguchi sculptures set in a trough of pebbles flow out to jon other works in the garden

Storage, services and art handling are accommodated in a basement that runs the length of the new complex. The addition comprises 16 500 square metres, a 70 per cent increase of space over the old museum, and the cost for design, construction and all equipment was $196 million.

As unthreatening as the design is, it encountered predictable opposition from the legendarily conservative population of Kansas City when it was first presented for public discussion. Soon, as almost always happens, people accustomed themselves to the unfamiliar and then embraced it, making the Bloch Building a popular as well as a critical success.

FACT FILE

Architect Steven Holl Architects, New York
Associate architect Berkebile Nelson Immenschuh McDowell Architects
Structural engineers Guy Nordenson and Associates and Structural Engineering Associates
Mechanical engineers Ove Arup & Partners with W. L Cassell Associates
Landscape architects Gould Evans and Olin Partnership
Photographs All photographs by Roland Halbe except no I which is by Andy Ryan

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