See Hear: Steve Paul on Rambling Around the Arts | Architect’s Imprint on the City is Unmistakable — and Complicated

The Kauffman Center, designed by Moshe Safdie, remains a shining bauble on the cityscape downtown. (photo by Steve Paul)

The architect Moshe Safdie has earned a reputation as a visionary designer and thinker with a global portfolio. Going back as far as his career-launching plan for the Habitat 67 apartment community, only a fraction of which was built for the Montreal world expo in 1967, Safdie has been reinventing urban landscapes and creating memorable cultural landmarks at a remarkably swift pace.

Atlantic Monthly Press

Now in his 80s, the Israeli-Canadian-American practitioner spent a good part of the pandemic reflecting on his formidable career and producing a memoir, “If Walls Could Speak: My Life in Architecture” (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2022).

Safdie, of course, is the designer, who, c. 2000, sat at a Kansas City dinner table with Julia Irene Kauffman and sketched the bulbous beginnings of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts on a cocktail napkin. They were dining at the American Restaurant in Crown Center, with a view of the vacant Crossroads hilltop that would eventually hoist Safdie’s glass-walled creation to the sky. After its completion more than a decade later, it quickly became an urban trophy, the kind of eye candy that national sports broadcasters can’t help but feature in their colorful nighttime blips of local recognition.

Good for us. No big deal for him. In his book, Safdie spends little time recalling the Kauffman Center. He mainly counts it memorable for his decision, prodded by Frank Gehry, to replace his acoustics consultant with Yasu Toyota, who had made the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles a treasured symphony space. Safdie and Toyota worked together in search of a “sublime” sound and an intimate audience connection to the orchestra in Helzberg Hall. No mention of the spiffed-up, Euro-style opera house alongside it or the complicated engineering of the enveloping structure. Polite applause, please, and let’s move on.

Safdie seems much more enthusiastic about two other projects in the region built around the same time. One was the Exploration Place science museum on Wichita’s formerly bereft riverfront, which opened just as the Kauffman Center planning was underway. The other was the Alice Walton-funded Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in northwest Arkansas, the multi-part complex that not only turned a woodsy hollow into a magical mecca for art but also sparked the ongoing civic transformation of its sleepy Bentonville home.

Crystal Bridges opened in 2011, the same year as the Kauffman Center. Even now, Safdie has been re-engaged to expand the Arkansas museum and draw up a master plan for its next 25 years.

In Kansas City, the Kauffman has never been able to bring some forgotten pieces of its original plan to fruition — a third performance hall, a ballet headquarters building. And locals, after failing to land a new campus for UMKC’s Conservatory, have been jousting over a developer’s desire to build a luxury hotel just to the east of the Kauffman. Few of those hiccups are Safdie’s doing, but the stasis is not exactly what some of us would call vision.

From the Kauffman, Safdie went on to utterly redefine the island city-state of Singapore with his Marina Bay Sands resort, a complex of three towers topped by an expansive, cantilevered infinity pool and park. Singapore’s surprising, garden-enhanced Changi Airport and massive development projects in China followed.

At the Kauffman, despite all its lovely details, if you’ve ever been stuck after a show in the elbow-to-elbow egress via the central staircase you might have wondered what Safdie was thinking. His vision might have involved the not-yet-realized notion that a larger number of people would leave the Kauffman atrium via the north, downtown-facing doors. So I’ll give him that.

Safdie’s relative reserve about Kansas City may well have stemmed from the sad story involving a subsequent project he never mentions in his memoir and which he surely has erased from his consciousness as unforgivably bad juju. Nevertheless, recounting the debacle of the failed West Edge office project might have been instructive, although possibly litigious, if he had weighed in on lessons learned.

Commissioned by Bob Bernstein and under construction by the J.E. Dunn Co., the West Edge complex was halted in 2008 by a legal dispute. It was a war of titans disagreeing over costs and contracts. Eventually, new owners and developers decided they couldn’t live with Safdie’s somewhat unconventional design and scrapped the partly built tower, saving only the underground garage decks. (An adjacent hotel is also a remnant of the original plan for the complex.)

If only those lost walls could speak. Some of us will never forget the torturous history behind what we now know as the Polsinelli office tower at 900 W. 48th Place. It really shouldn’t be forgotten, though, because in the annals of star architecture and rich-people’s dreams and problems it represents a classic morality tale.

Three Things I’m Looking Forward To

March is expected to bring the opening of the new KCI Airport. By all indications, the experience of inbound and outbound travelers will immediately improve, and the city’s gateway, a first impression for many, will be transformed from drab and dreary to airy and alive. It remains to be seen how the art and music installations will contribute to our comfort and excitement, but here’s hoping.

March 24-26: The Kansas City Symphony presents two new works and a guest-conducting gig for the young (35) Teddy Abrams. Jennifer Koh plays a violin concerto by Missy Mazzoli. Also featured will be Caroline Shaw’s celestial “The Observatory” and Gustav Holst’s “The Planets,” buttressed by the women of the Symphony chorus. At Helzberg Hall.

April 29: “Champion,” Terence Blanchard’s second production at the Metropolitan Opera (following “Fire Shut Up in My Bones”) is built around the life of boxer Emile Griffith. It promises another immersion in a jazz-inflected, contemporary take on an operatic portrayal of the Black American experience. In the hinterlands we can catch a live-stream broadcast on a movie screen. In contrast with the Saturday afternoon radio broadcast, the high-def experience brings you up close to the action and backstage during intermission. Noon, Town Center AMC Theaters. Also showing in Lawrence and Topeka. Tickets at fathomevents.com.

Steve Paul

Steve Paul is the author of “Hemingway at Eighteen” and a biography of Evan S. Connell. He has been a writer and editor in Kansas City for more than 45 years.

  1. Jill says:

    One other Moshe Safdie’s works in Kansas City is the Atriums on the Plaza condos located off Walnut Street between the Nelson And Cafe Trio. Fashioned after the Habitat apartment complex, I believe. We love our little condo spot. But it would be fun if it was included in the history of his works around the area..

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