Architect Safdie Makes Sure Everything Stays up to Date in Kansas City

October 14, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Jeffrey Brown speaks with Moshe Safdie, architect of the brand-new $326 million Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, about the moral purpose of architecture and the need for a building to reflect the cultural essence of its location while remaining timeless.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, a shining new showcase for the arts in the Midwest, and an architect having an impact around the world.

Jeffrey Brown has the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was a gala weekend in Kansas City recently, with opera in one grand new hall and, in another, some hometown jazz, all to celebrate the brand-new $326 million Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, and its architect, Moshe Safdie.

MOSHE SAFDIE, architect: And there’s one theater. There’s the other theater. And you read them as volumes, at night even more dramatically as they’re lit.

JEFFREY BROWN: Safdie gave us a tour of the new home of the Kansas City Symphony, Ballet and Lyric Opera, two state-of-the-art spaces united by a multi-tiered lobby with sweeping views of the city, on the north facade, waves of stainless steel that form a gigantic shell, on the south, 40,000 square feet of glass anchored to the ground with 27 high-tension cables.

MOSHE SAFDIE: It’s almost like a musical instrument. You almost feel like a giant person could come and sort of play the building like the harp.

JEFFREY BROWN: Safdie, who’s designed numerous cultural institutions all over the world, says, for him, the function of a building always determines the form that he creates.

MOSHE SAFDIE: Performing arts buildings are complex. The acoustics, the sight lines and all that have to just be perfect. So you begin with just making these things sublime as musical instruments. And if you fail there, you have failed it all.

But it’s got to go beyond that, because it’s got to be about the ritual of partaking in the performing arts. It’s just got to uplift people’s spirits, so it becomes a place for the community.

JEFFREY BROWN: Uplift people’s spirits, huh? Is that the essential task?

MOSHE SAFDIE: Absolutely.

I think there’s architecture that uplifts you, that makes you feel optimistic, that makes you feel celebratory. And that’s what performing arts are all about.

JEFFREY BROWN: But how does a city build something like this in hard economic times? Kansas City’s done it the old-fashioned way, through private philanthropy.

The idea for the center began 16 years ago with Muriel Kauffman, wife of Ewing Kauffman, founder of a large pharmaceutical company. When Muriel died, daughter Julia made it her mission to raise the rest of the funds and hold down costs.

JULIA KAUFFMAN, Muriel McBrien Kauffman Foundation: I did cut all the froufrou in the bathrooms and in the backup house.

JEFFREY BROWN: No froufrou.

JULIA KAUFFMAN: No froufrous, right down to white tile bathrooms everywhere, because that was most cost-effective. But we left the money in the acoustics. And the works is what I really felt was the most important. You know, while my mother taught me the arts, Ewing Kauffman taught me the bottom line.




JEFFREY BROWN: Your father taught…

JULIA KAUFFMAN: And he’s watching over me, and I better be sure about that bottom line.

JEFFREY BROWN: Kauffman brought in architect Moshe Safdie to design a space that could bring together the city’s downtown area and an emerging warehouse district of small galleries and shops.

JULIA KAUFFMAN: He’s known for tying blighted areas together with others. He built something for the community that seems to draw you in, and that’s what we needed in this location in our town.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, the city needs and wants a great deal from this project, an economic and energy boost for its downtown.

Jane Chu is the Kauffman Center’s CEO.

JANE CHU, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts: There’s something about a building like this that spurs on other people to want to keep a high level of activity going in their areas. It’s like if you swept your own porch and — in your neighborhood, and other houses looked over and said, he’s sweeping his porch, too. I better sweep mine.

JEFFREY BROWN: If Kansas City is looking to raise its profile in the nation’s cultural life, Moshe Safdie seems out to cement his internationally. The Kauffman center is just one of four major Safdie buildings opening this fall.

There’s the U.S. Peace Institute in Washington, D.C., Alice Walton of the Wal-Mart family’s Crystal Bridges art museum in Arkansas, and a cultural heritage center in Punjab, India. All the projects, Safdie says, reflect the unique environment in which they were created.

MOSHE SAFDIE: I think you need to, as an architect, understand the essence of a place and create a building that feels like it resonates with the culture of a place. So my buildings in India or in Kansas City or in Arkansas or in Singapore, they come out different because the places are so different.

JEFFREY BROWN: Safdie himself is a product of many cultures. He was born in Haifa and emigrated to Montreal as a young man, where he studied architecture. He now calls Boston his home.

He burst to fame in his 20s with a design featured at the 1967 World Expo for high-density apartment living called Habitat. Forty years later, after designing numerous museums, libraries and airports, he’s starting to focus again on urban living.

Last year, he built a huge multi-use complex in downtown Singapore with a large park and gardens on top. And he’s currently working on three mega-apartment buildings in Asia.

MOSHE SAFDIE: These cities of 20 million and 30 million people, with densities of thousands of families per acre, they require new inventions to humanize that mega-scale, to find a way in which, though we live densely and though we live one on top of each other, we still want nature, and we still want sunlight and we still want the garden, and we still want all the qualities that make a place humane. And that’s our responsibility.

JEFFREY BROWN: Safdie says architects have an additional responsibility as well.

MOSHE SAFDIE: There is a profound ethic to architecture which is different from the other arts.

A painter, a sculptor, a writer, they can express freely. They don’t affect society as a whole. We build buildings that have a purpose, that stay there for hundreds of years or decades.

JEFFREY BROWN: I mean, of course, we’re in a time where a lot of buildings have a kind of outlandish, “look at me” sculptural quality, too.

MOSHE SAFDIE: To me, there is an ethic. It’s not a wonderful freedom. There are constraints about architecture. So we have a responsibility to make buildings that have a timeless quality about them, which is the ethic of our profession.

JEFFREY BROWN: Critics have sometimes complained that Safdie’s work too often isn’t imaginative enough. A Washington Post writer called the new U.S. Peace Institute building — quote — “smart, clean and bland.”

Safdie, with commissions galore, says he cares more what people in the neighborhood think.

MOSHE SAFDIE: The ultimate test is, do they get their photographs here and what do the taxi drivers say? I think…

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s what you use as the test?

MOSHE SAFDIE: I think, you really want to know about architecture?


MOSHE SAFDIE: Taxi drivers. You will always find out about what the public feels about a building from taxi drivers.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have got to deal with clients and you have got to deal with art critics and you have got to deal with all kinds of people, but the taxi drivers are the ones that tell you, huh?

MOSHE SAFDIE: Absolutely.


JEFFREY BROWN: The questions now for Kansas City, will audiences love the new building, and, in tough economic times, keep coming after the celebration ends?