Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Contrast & Complement
"The 1933 Nelson-Atkins Building embodies the traditional role of an art museum within society, an institution dedicated to collecting and preserving significant cultural artifacts," states SHA Principal Architect Chris McVoy. "The charge given us to expand the original building offered the chance to fundamentally transform the museum toward a more open relationship with the city and develop a more subjective engagement with the art."
Museum Director and CEO Marc Wilson and the rest of the museum leadership couldn't have agreed more. Knapp affirms that the selection committee chose SHA because they had stepped outside the owner's expectations and presented something exciting. "Porosity in the buildings and on the site is not only an architectural concept, but also describes our attitude. One of the most important goals of the strategic plan was accessibility and open doors."
Consequently, there is no admission charge, and thus no need for a single entry point. Instead, visitors move freely between the sculpture park, the existing building, and the new space.
In the midst of these connected realms, the Bloch Building lurks just below the surface, like a submarine with five protruding periscopes, or "lenses," manipulated to capture and release light. Loosely linked galleries comfortably descend along the new building's 840-foot (256-meter) length, occasionally revealing glimpses of and access to the surrounding sculpture park.
According to McVoy, the addition was thought of not as an object, but as "a new paradigm fusing landscape and architecture." The grade was treated as a plane extended over the galleries as a green roof and blended seamlessly into the landscape with the glowing walls of the Bloch Building strategically forming exterior "rooms."
Meanwhile, the stone Nelson-Atkins Building underwent over $50 million of changes as well, including lighting and acoustical upgrades, extensive cleaning, and the insertion of a roomy Children's Learning Center on the ground floor. "Our task was to acknowledge the existing building while being sympathetic to the addition," says BNIM Principal Casey Cassias. "The highest compliment we could be paid for our work on the existing building would be to say that you couldn't even tell we'd been there except that it's cleaner."
Quickly becoming the project's trademark, the custom glass assembly of the lenses in the Bloch Building was also McVoy's most difficult technical challenge. "Lamberts of Germany introduced new production techniques to fabricate the first tempered plank channel glass with custom widths and a combination of stippled and sandblasted treatments used to diffuse the light to the interior and soften the reflection on the exterior. Testing began in Germany and ended in Florida."
The assembly description could fill a small book, but suffice it to say that the one-meter- (3.3-foot) thick walls include an outer layer of interlocking planks and an inner layer of low-iron, acid-etched glass separated by a pressurized air cavity that buffers the art environment from exterior conditions. "By the time light has passed through the multiple layers of diffusion and diffraction caused by the glass treatments," describes McVoy, "it takes on an ethereal, mist-like quality, filling the volumes."
It was crucial not only to the design concept, but also to the artwork, to get this assembly right. Within the air cavity, computer-controlled shade screens allow variable daylighting to meet conservation criteria for the full range of art media, including black-out conditions for video, with automatic adjustments for seasonal light and temperature variations.
"We made a conscious decision that Steven's proposed use of natural light was compatible with our expectations, but that we could not rely on it to illuminate the art," recalls Director/CEO Knapp. "We tried to extract all the positive aspects of the daylight that we could muster, while shielding harmful UV rays and using electric lights to light the art itself."
A datum was established 12 feet (3.7 meters) above the floor, below which light levels had to reach conservation criteria. Above the datum, however, the ambient light could vary to "intensify and register the infinite variations of natural light through time within the space," as McVoy says. Carefully sculpted T-shaped structural elements run vertically up to the datum, then casually peel away above it in order to foster more dynamic light patterns. These light scoops thickened steel supports enveloped by paster also "breathe" by housing the air distribution system within their girth.
Funded privately, the $200 million expansion-and-renovation project required some faith from museum leadership to stand by several seemingly unorthodox choices inherent in SHA's proposal. Interrupting the traditionally symmetrical museum grounds by expanding to the east, using structural channel glass as form, and letting natural light penetrate the galleries all contributed to a surge in editorials in the Kansas City Star.
"During construction," recalls McVoy, "the design sparked a debate within the community as to the 'appropriateness' of placing such an unconventional architecture next of the sacred icon of the city. The debate spanned the full range of praise and criticism, eliciting comments from people who normally wouldn't give architecture the time of day. But as the building opened, there was a huge response of appreciation."
Indeed, the project is now being lauded almost universally by architecture critics. But local community members have been slightly more reserved in their compliments. "I still look in the editorial column every day to see who is calling us 'bozos' now," laments Cassias.
Cassias should rest easy. The giant sculptural Shuttlecocks scattered around the museum grounds Claus Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen's 1994 statement about the perceived gap between elite art museums and the general public underwent the same scrutiny. Yet now, just over a decade later, they have become beloved icons that SHA was encourage not to touch.
Until such time as the Bloch Building may become similarly beloved by locals, owner and architect alike are appreciative of the dialogue that the building has sparked in Kansas City. As Cassias sees it, "Some people will never understand it. But this project has raised expectations and awareness of architecture in Kansas City, and is therefore the absolute best thing for architecture."
Incidentally, there does seem to be one aspect of the project that no one is complaining about: the way the art looks in the spaces.
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Leigh Christy is an architect and writer living in Los Angeles.