words Bill Millard
A study in soft light and sharp contrasts, Steven Holl’s Bloch Building transforms the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, from a respected regional institution into a focal point of worldwide attention.
That attention comes after eight years of planning, experiment and controversy, and it doesn’t come automatically. Getting to know the Bloch takes work; one has to penetrate beneath the surface, metaphorically and literally. But it’s worth the trouble. Holl and colleagues have overcome considerable obstacles, managing to marry antiquity with contemporaneity, stability with motion and earth with light.
The Bloch is a large gamble by an institution not known for acting rashly. Because most of the building is underground, casual passersby will have little idea of its strengths, or even what type of structure it is. If a stately neoclassical museum weren’t standing a few feet away, the Bloch’s five above-ground pavilions could pass for warehouses or containers – Holl calls them “lenses”, denoting not their form but their function, which is channeling light down into the interior. The building rewards firsthand experience but does not at first flaunt its main attractions. By daylight it barely makes them perceptible at all – its best views appear at night.
The Bloch’s stylistic circumspection serves its conceptual ambition. The governing concept involves the building’s relationship to the existing Nelson-Atkins. That 1933 Beaux Arts limestone temple by Thomas and William Wight (Kansas City residents who had trained at McKim, Mead and White) houses an institution founded explicitly to civilise a rough frontier town. The lofty Victorian sentiments inscribed on its frieze, such as “The soul has greater need of the ideal than of the real,” from Victor Hugo’s 1864 essay on Shakespeare, must have been hard for much of the Depression-era populace to swallow. A “contextual” (ie nostalgic) neoclassical extension would be no more appropriate for today’s audience. Yet Holl uses contemporary asymmetrical strategies, utterly antithetical to the Wights’ design vocabulary, to embody impulses that he is happy to describe in frankly visionary language. “Both of these buildings are based on ideals that are beyond them,” he says. While the older Nelson-Atkins looks to ancient Greece and idealises its orderly cyclical repetitions, the Bloch looks to a future that is “open-ended and unpredictable, unknown ... it celebrates the potential of the future in the same way as the other building celebrates the rules of the past ... Both these projects hold the possibility of an ideal as the driving force behind the design.”
Nelson-Atkins needed to add space to accommodate overflowing departments (contemporary art, African art, photography, a Thomas Noguchi collection and special exhibitions) without diminishing the older building. At the competition stage, the board looked at six possible solutions. All five other firms, according to director Marc Wilson, interpreted an early drawing as a programme requirement and attached large additions to the museum’s north face, where a scruffy parking lot was understandably deemed expendable. Holl and his partner Chris McVoy, in contrast, ignored the drawing, reasoning that the more important mandate was to respect the older building. “Right from the beginning,” Holl recalls, “we took a very idealistic position: we said we’re not going to block any one of these facades.” McVoy devised a way to connect the buildings by eliminating one wall (“like cutting a blocked artery,” says Holl) and extending a new staircase transversely, creating long, dramatic sightlines within the older building. With the addition straddling the east wing and reaching southward into the Kansas City Sculpture Park, largely occupying subterranean space below green roof segments, Holl’s unorthodox entry quickly gained the board’s enthusiasm (and, Holl reports, the thanks of “a lot of little old ladies with blue hair” for preserving their views of the much-loved original building). The dialogue between radically different yet interdependent buildings creates a contrast that heightens the featuresof each. Holl’s design answers stone with glass, solidity with ethereality, ordered sequentiality with improvisational fluidity.
The entrance to the transitional space that connects the new and old buildings is one of two main pathways into the four-storey lobby. The other pathway connects the lobby’s northern end to underground parking, recognising that most visitors in this community will be driving in, not walking up. The garage is buried beneath a reflecting pool, aestheticising even the mundane experience of parking: skylights in the pool (Walter De Maria’s installation One Sun/34 Moons) admit circles of daylight through the garage’s ceiling by day, while at night the garage lights illuminate the water through the ?perforations. Visitors walk from the parking area directly to dignified plate-glass entryways to the lobby – not as imposing as the 1933 building’s atrium, but more welcoming, and far more humane than the usual grim garage. As 21st-century urbanism struggles to define a bearable role for vehicles in civic space, perhaps this is a realistic approach: hide the cars, resist making all decisions around them, but respect the drivers.
The lobby is a complex sculpture of stairways and switchback ramps, textures and lighting effects. As museumgoers explore options for navigation, they find interior walls of hand-worked Italian plaster, cool gray terrazzo flooring, non-orthogonal angles and a long, double-take-inducing unsupported staircase cantilevered along one wall (its rounded guardrail doubles as a load-bearing steel beam). Nothing is symmetrical, nothing rests on straight axes and no elements are repeated. Each surface, vector or angle brings a degree of surprise.
The most welcome surprise is the light – ample and gentle – directed into the space by the upper lobby lens and the distinctive translucent wall panels. The lobby and gallery spaces benefited from a prolonged, exacting study of Kansas City’s seasonal sunlight patterns by lighting consultant Renfro Design Group of New York. Holl’s scrupulous attention to light deploys 27 different types of glass throughout the building, including a material custom-manufactured by Germany’s Lamberts Glasfabrik: tempered, low-iron, U-profile channel glass in double-layered configurations with an Okalux interior capillary system resembling optical fibres, its surface sandblasted to a smoothly knobby texture. The channel glass has distinctive effects in two directions: the fluorescent lights that give the exterior its uncannily diffused nocturnal glow are mounted behind panels of this glass, and the interior receives extremely white illumination, lacking the green tinge caused by high iron content. These glass planks are also load-bearing, requiring extensive testing and adding substantial cost and time to the project. Some local sceptics have seized on that aspect with glee, questioning the importance of finding the one supplier in the world that could meet Holl’s rigorous requirements. However, judging from his previous designs emphasising translucency (particularly the Higgins Hall addition at New York’s Pratt Institute), as well as from close direct views of the Bloch at night, I would expect the unusual glass to become one of the building’s signature features.
Beneath the five boxy “lenses”, large pillars topped by curved expansions direct sunlight downwards, mixing it with artificial light to bathe artworks and viewers in a radiance of exceptional richness, combining the chilly blue of northern light and southern light’s warmer yellow. With additional means of control such as adjustable louvres allowing ten per cent shade, 50 per cent shade or complete blackout, the Bloch’s different gallery spaces are tuned to the specific requirements for displaying African artifacts, daguerreotypes, boisterous pop paintings or sober minimalism. Holl and client Wilson share a distrust of the generic-box approach, favouring active cultivation of what Wilson calls viewers’ “visual IQ” over ostensible neutrality. The Bloch’s fine-tuning of light represents a distinct victory for spaces constructed specifically to connect perception with the things perceived.
It’s conceivable that the Bloch will put paid to three widespread fallacies. One is that a neoclassical building can be expanded only with a kitschy pastiche or an alien-looking graft that at best obscures, and at worst desecrates, the older structure’s recognised beauties. Another is that the central US remains as philistine as Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics once implied (“Everything’s up to date in Kansas City/They gone about as fer as they can go/They went an’ built a skyscraper seven stories high/About as high as a buildin’ orta grow”). There’s more to middle America than that. When medium-sized places like Kansas City, Minneapolis, Louisville and even Toledo foster some of today’s most innovative construction – often more readily than larger centres – that’s more than a wakeup call; it signifies the breakdown of a polarised cultural/ geographical paradigm that’s long overdue.
The third fallacy is that Holl can be understood largely as an academic architect whose buildings evoke guarded “yes, but ...” responses. (The Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki: breathtakingly graceful, but the roof leaked. MIT’s Simmons Hall residential college, Massachusetts: revolutionary, but students find it hard to live in). Viewing Holl as a theory-above-practice man appears increasingly unjustified in the face of this performance.
Holl and McVoy have diligently resisted the post-Bilbao wave of pointlessly flamboyant museums. Instead of calling attention to itself, the Bloch welcomes the visitor in, holding the strongest ideas for the interior and serving, not overwhelming, the artworks. It puts its ideals, context and mission ahead of its own potential iconic status. By presenting such logical and appropriate ideas to answer specific purposes,
it is likely to become an icon in spite of itself.