Launch Slideshow

Letter From Kansas City

A critic returns to her hometown, where Steven Holl's unorthodox vision for a beloved art museum sparked years of debate.

Letter From Kansas City

A critic returns to her hometown, where Steven Holl's unorthodox vision for a beloved art museum sparked years of debate.

  • http://www.architectmagazine.com/Images/tmpB0AA%2Etmp_tcm20-166535.jpg

    true

    600

    Timothy Hursley

    The solid limestone edifice of the original Nelson-Atkins Building with one of the Bloch Building's five "lanterns," designed by Steven Holl.

  • http://www.architectmagazine.com/Images/tmpB0B1%2Etmp_tcm20-166542.jpg

    true

    600

    Timothy Hursley

    The crystal-like boxes of Holl's addition scatter down the museum's sloping lawn.

  • http://www.architectmagazine.com/Images/tmpB0BE%2Etmp_tcm20-166556.jpg

    true

    600

    Don Ipock

    Seven pavilions were planned, but only five were built. At the donors' gala in March. Steven Holl with Delores DeWilde Bina and Robert F. Bina.

  • http://www.architectmagazine.com/Images/tmpB0AD%2Etmp_tcm20-166572.jpg

    true

    600

    Don Ipock

    H&R Block co-founder Henry Bloch.

  • http://www.architectmagazine.com/Images/tmpB0AE%2Etmp_tcm20-166579.jpg

    true

    600

    Don Ipock

    William A. and Carlene Hall of the Hall (Hallmark Cards) family, with Morton I. Sosland of Sosland Cos.

  • http://www.architectmagazine.com/Images/tmpB0BB%2Etmp_tcm20-166549.jpg

    true

    600

    Roland Halbe

    The Isamu Noguchi Sculpture Court houses seven works by the Japanese-American artist who inspired Holl's design.

Occasional glimpses of the outdoors through transparent panes make the visitor's trajectory orderly and intuitive, even if one is not always conscious of being above or below grade. Beneath the galleries, two levels of conservation, storage, and other facilities extend horizontally and out of sight.

“It wasn't that easy,” Holl tells me. “But there are no compromises in the building.”

For 48 years after its founding, the Nelson-Atkins was under the spell of a mad Sinologist, Laurence Sickman, who amassed a collection of Chinese treasures, among the main international attractions. Since 1999, the museum has weathered the architectural equivalent of a mad scientist in Holl, who won the Kansas City commission over international rivals because, as director Wilson puts it, he was “the only person who had an idea.”

The museum was overcrowded and underattended, and the arrival four years earlier of four Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen Shuttlecocks, commissioned by the Sosland family, had issued a cultural wake-up call. Wilson freely admits he was in the market for a “revolution.”

Kansas City is not the only midsize city looking to architecture to improve its cachet as a cultural stopover. But the Bloch Building is surely the most unorthodox museum to open this year, and probably the best. When viewed from the new forecourt, across a minimalist reflecting pool, the largest of the glass boxes makes an unexpected partner for the stone temple, but also an intelligent one. The two buildings are joined underground at a single point, marked by massive bronze doors. But the illusion of separateness allows the Nelson building to remain a formidable bastion of art, with hushed halls and leather floors. The Bloch Building stands out as the architectural equivalent of the iPod.

While every other architect proposed some kind of addition that would have obscured the north façade of the Beaux Arts building, Holl says that with all of its façades equally detailed, “you could just not add on.” So he proposed to go underground, trailing seven glass boxes down the side of the lawn. “It's not the building as iconic object,” he says. “It's a field.” Only five boxes were built, to save money and keep the group from looking like “a shantytown,” Wilson remarks—a critique that had escaped even the most creative letter writer.

The project says as much about the commitment and wealth of the donors as about the power of architecture. When the price tag leapfrogged over the initial projection of $83 million to $196.3 million, by Wilson's last count, trustees simply passed the hat and doubled that amount. Between toasts at the March party, Morton I. Sosland, a chief fundraiser, put the total figure raised at $400 million. Bloch puts the figure at $300 million, a third of which will endow the new building.

Whatever the challenge and despite the criticism, “they didn't cringe or back away,” Holl says.

A visit to the museum begins and ends with views of the stippled channel glass exterior. The panels were developed for Holl by a 120-year-old Bavarian manufacturer, Lamberts Glasfabrik. The project called for 6,000 planks of 17 specific types of glass for the exterior and the interior. The original design envisioned 22-inch-long planks, each 16 inches wide, to minimize seams. But after sandblasting to get the lighting effect, the glass failed the stress test.

With 90 percent of the construction drawings complete, the Star reported, the boxes had to be redesigned with shorter panels. Testing the glass added a year to the timeline.