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Annabelle Selldorf to Deliver Mary Atkins Lecture at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Annabelle Selldorf (Stephen Kent Johnson / courtesy of Selldorf Architects)

Following a two-year, pandemic-driven hiatus, the Mary Atkins Lecture Series at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art returns with architect Annabelle Selldorf.

At its inception in 1995, the series brought leading figures in the arts to Kansas City. Since 2011, the series has focused on major architects, including Moshe Safdie, Steven Holl, Marion Blackwell, Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee. Annabelle Selldorf is a worthy addition to the list.

Born in Cologne, Germany, to an architect father and artist mother and introduced to both disciplines at an early age, Selldorf followed in her father’s and mother’s footsteps to become an architect that “integrates design and art, not one or the other.”

In 1979, Selldorf moved to New York City, where she received her Bachelor of Architecture degree from Pratt Institute and a Master of Architecture from Syracuse University in Florence.

Selldorf founded Selldorf Architects in 1988. As described on her website, “The firm creates public and private spaces that manifest a clear and modern sensibility to enduring impact. Since its inception the firm’s design ethos has been deeply rooted in the principles of humanism.”

Selldorf explained her emphasis on humanist principles as being “human centric, being mindful of the social contract” between her, her patron, the project, and environment which her creation will occupy.

Selldorf is a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects and serves on the Board of the Architectural League of New York and the World Monuments Fund. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, from which she received the organization’s prestigious Award in Architecture, and the American Institute of Architects New York Chapter, who awarded her its Medal of Honor.

Installation view of Yayoi Kusama, “Every Day I Pray for Love” (2019), at David Zwirner New York’s gallery building in West Chelsea, designed by Selldorf Architects (Nicholas Venezia / courtesy of Selldorf Architects)

Her work has included luxurious residential buildings in New York City, high-end houses in the Hamptons, and widely acclaimed public spaces such as the Frick Collection, Steinway Hall, and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and the Luma Foundation in Arles, France. When asked which was her favorite, like most architects, she mused that it is always the one she is working on in which she is immersed.

Selldorf has been described as “an architect of precision and poise” and “a quietly elegant architect.” Nevertheless, her critics find it hard to describe, or label, her work. Most commonly, they describe her as a minimalist.

Interior view of Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, La Jolla, California, an expansion and renovation by Selldorf Architects, completed in 2022 (Nicholas Venezia / courtesy of Selldorf Architects)

Selldorf bristles at being labeled. She admits that she finds the question of her “signature” interesting, and that there exists “a distinct handwriting” in her work. “I believe that we always have to start with utilitarian purpose, but obviously that is not enough,” she says. “There has to be an idea that includes how and for what purpose people use space, but more importantly how they experience it. My goal is to find that narrow path where an intervention does as little as is necessary — never to do too much but doing enough to be monumental.”

As to how art and design enter her work, she explains: “I think that strategies in architecture address fundamentally different conditions than those in art. But architecture is an art form. It is the mother of all arts. And I think of myself as an architect, not an artist. But that can be limiting. Architecture is about more than what a building looks like.”

Jay Tomlinson, principal of Helix Architecture + Design, recommended Selldorf for this year’s lecture. “Selldorf’s firm has completed numerous prestigious museum and arts commissions around the world,” he said, “and her work is certainly on par with other architects who have given a Mary Atkins lecture. In a time of eye-catching architecture, Ms. Selldorf’s work is timeless and serene. It does not rely on bombast, but rather seems to take a long view. It’s her rigor and restraint that seems to favor the long view over what’s hot today that distinguishes her work.”

Annabelle Selldorf will speak at the The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art at 7 p.m. Dec. 14. For more information and tickets, visit www.nelson-atkins.org/event.

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Bryan F. Le Beau

Bryan F. Le Beau is retired from the University of Saint Mary, where he served as Professor of History, Provost, and Vice President for Academic Affairs. He is the author of several books on American cultural and religious history.

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