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.

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    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.

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    Timothy Hursley

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

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    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.

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    Don Ipock

    H&R Block co-founder Henry Bloch.

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    Don Ipock

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

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    Roland Halbe

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

“We had some doubts about it early on,” Bloch says. “It was a very complicated building to build, but looking back, it was well worth it,” if only to experience the interior. “Our inside is just very, very beautiful,” he says.

The new entrance, in the largest of the glass boxes, propels visitors into a sunlit atrium with a better view of the original temple than one has from the outdoors. Overhead, a 70-foot-long steel truss slashes the space like a warning: no straight paths ahead, but plenty of angles that play off the symmetry of the original building. Holl also meant to honor “the individualism” of contemporary artists such as Franz Kline, whose scrawl of lines and arcs in the painting Turin helped inspire his design.

For all its glamour, the building is still a learning experience. White plaster walls are so polished, they could bounce daylight to the heavens—if cautious curators hadn't dropped the electronic shades to safeguard the artworks. The glass stopped a bullet in tests, but curators aren't convinced it will block UV rays. Holl is clearly annoyed.

McVoy opens a 34-foot-tall door to show off a chapel-size gallery installed with works by Sol LeWitt. The main feature on this occasion, however, is not the art, which is still under wraps. It's the view through a panel of transparent glass. The hilltop temple—where debutantes still bow to society in the great hall, and which everyone had worried, quite rightly, would never be the same—is perfectly framed.

“You see,” Holl says triumphantly, “it defers.”