Museum’s Contemporary Addition Sparks Mixed Response
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JEFFREY BROWN: On a recent fine evening in Kansas City, people were dancing, the band was playing, the crowd was aglow, and so was the building being celebrated. Reviews for the brand-new Bloch Building have also been glowing, as this addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is welcomed as an important example of museum architecture.
If you have a grand, much-loved building, but you’re out of space and you want to build an expansion, how do you do it? That was a key question here in Kansas City: how to marry the old and new, traditional and contemporary architecture, and somehow make it seem that they actually belong together.
MARC WILSON, Director, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art: As you move downstairs through the spaces, that begins to change.
JEFFREY BROWN: Museum Director Marc Wilson was the man who oversaw the task.
MARC WILSON: This is not a community that holds its opinions quietly to itself. They said, “Marc, if you mess up those big, beautiful facades, you know, we’re going to tar and feather you and send you off to somewhere you won’t like.”
JEFFREY BROWN: The facades Wilson worried about belonged to the 1930s neoclassical building his museum is famous for: austere, symmetrical, perfectly placed atop a hill in a beautiful, park-like setting. This is the museum as temple of art.
Inside, the collection is considered one of the finest in the nation, including ancient sculptures, renowned Asian galleries, and, of course, works by American artists. Remarkably, much of the collection was gathered in a very short time in the midst of the Depression with funds from the estates of William Nelson, co-founder of the Kansas City Star, and Mary Atkins, an art-loving citizen.
By the late ’90s, Wilson knew he needed more space and hoped to expand the experience of going to the museum, as well.
MARC WILSON: How do we get people hooked up with the art? Given that enhanced opportunity, that special state of alertness, you know, when you really get into something, you get into that zone, when you’re mentally really alert, and you’re just sort of connecting up directly with something, how can we create that environment inside?
Behind the architect
STEVEN HOLL, Architect: I'm a little bit different than most architects, because most of them will make models of the building from the outside as an object. What I want is I want the space inside to be the real story of the building.
JEFFREY BROWN: The architect chosen for the job was Steven Holl, a 60-year-old native of Washington state who now heads a major design firm in New York and is known for his use of light and space in buildings such as the Chapel of St. Ignatius in Seattle and the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki, Finland.
Holl begins by doing small watercolors developing his ideas. In Kansas City, with 650 different drawings, the end result was a building consisting of five so-called lenses that allow outside light to flow in different directions and mix with interior lighting.
STEVEN HOLL: I've always celebrated light in my architecture in different ways. And in this building, Marc Wilson, who is the director, agreed that we would have changing natural light, and we would light the artwork specifically with, you know, artificial light where we needed to, so we could keep a balance. And we let the outside, the atmosphere and the change animate the spaces.
JEFFREY BROWN: Visitors can take various routes through the connected galleries, in some places underground, in others at grand level. Art works hang on flat, vertical walls, but look up and the eye is filled with curves, arches and plays of light.
The Bloch Building holds the museum's modern and contemporary art, its African gallery, and works from a major new acquisition, the Hallmark Photography Collection. It was given to the museum in 2005. Hallmark is based in Kansas City.
KEITH DAVIS, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art: The Hallmark Collection really does represent one of the great holdings of American photography that's ever been put together.
JEFFREY BROWN: Photography curator Keith Davis now has a place to put it. His opening exhibition featured early American daguerreotypes.
KEITH DAVIS: The space is powerful to the degree that it's flexible. And it's a pleasant surprise that it's so easy, in a sense, to make these little pictures look great in a space that really has a kind of grandeur to it.
Architecture and technology
JEFFREY BROWN: Steven Holl thought of the two buildings as complementary contrasts. He calls them stone and feather.
STEVEN HOLL: Now, this building is almost made out of light.
JEFFREY BROWN: Made out of light?
STEVEN HOLL: Yes, because, at night, the light starts to glow, and the cubes, these breathing T's, these lenses in the landscape, begin to emit light.
JEFFREY BROWN: What was the key thing for you in trying to mix the old and create something new?
STEVEN HOLL: That the new would be totally new and not be embarrassed or ever try to ape anything of the old.
JEFFREY BROWN: It all works because of specially made low-iron glass and insulation.
STEVEN HOLL: This material behind this glass is like polar bear hair. It's hollow. And it's like straw...
JEFFREY BROWN: Polar bear hair?
STEVEN HOLL: Just exactly like polar bear hair. You know, if you shave a polar bear, you see his skin is blue, right?
JEFFREY BROWN: No, I didn't know that.
STEVEN HOLL: Well, you haven't shaved a polar bear. But, you know, it's taking the sunlight and maximizing the insulation property. Now, that's what's happening behind these structural glass planks.
This material wasn't available 10, 15 years ago. I couldn't have done this building without that material. And that's a new material. And that's saying, you know, architecture is also about technology. It's about things that are new that allow us to do things we never could do before.
Reaction from residents
JEFFREY BROWN: Most of the almost $200 million funding for the building was raised privately from a new generation of Kansas City philanthropists. The building is named for Henry Bloch, co-founder of the tax services firm H&R Block, and his wife, Marion.
And on opening day, there was much celebrating. But in the years leading up to this moment, there had been plenty of doubts, and worse. Some neighbors watching the construction found the building just plain, well, plain. Kansas City resident Lynn Hinkle told us of early public sentiment.
LYNN HINKLE, Kansas City Resident: I don't think "worried" really captures it. More angry. It looked like Butler Buildings. It looked like a trailer park, you know, the metal buildings that you see behind a farm or, you know, at an industrial park. And people were frightened, I think, that this is what we've done to this place, Nelson-Atkins Museum? I mean, you know, this is an icon already.
JEFFREY BROWN: But now you've been here, what do you think?
LYNN HINKLE: It's beyond any expectations I had. It's so far beyond them that I wandered around thinking, "Am I still in Kansas City?"
JEFFREY BROWN: Indeed, the "how interesting that this is in Kansas City" theme is inevitably part of the story here, as architecture writers based in the traditional centers of culture swoop in for a look. It's no surprise to museum director Marc Wilson, who's clearly heard it all before.
You said, I think it was, "Kansas City's more exotic than Marrakech."
MARC WILSON: Well, to a New Yorker, Kansas City is more exotic than Marrakech. Most New Yorkers can tell you where to go get a good meal in Marrakech. But in Kansas City? No.
JEFFREY BROWN: So did you want to make a statement to the world that, here in Kansas City, you could have this great architecture?
MARC WILSON: My statement isn't to the world. If I cared what the world thought, I probably wouldn't be doing much of anything. No, I mean, the statement is as much to Kansas City as it is to the world. OK, guys, time to -- you know, let's not just push the envelope; we can blow it up.
JEFFREY BROWN: Wilson is happy to have the world walk through these revolving doors, but his main target, he says, is the people throughout the Kansas City region, to debate and discuss this new museum experience.