From Controversy and Criticism to Kansas City Icon

At night, with the lights on, the Bloch Building glows thanks to architect Steven Holl’s innovative use of translucent glass panel walls. While Holl employed glass walls in some of his earlier buildings, his addition to the Nelson-Atkins represents the first time he employed them in a museum. The effect is sensational. (Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art / photo by Tim Hursley)

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art Celebrates the 10th Anniversary of the Bloch Building

This year marks a milestone for the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art: the 10th anniversary of its internationally acclaimed Bloch Building.

Although June 2 marked the actual 10th anniversary date, the high point of the celebration is yet to come.

On Nov. 2, the building’s architect, Steven Holl, will make a triumphant return as the first speaker in the museum’s 2017-18 Mary Atkins Series.

Holl’s talk this fall is not the first time he will address a Kansas City audience. Many will remember his contentious public appearance on March 17, 2005 at Unity Temple, when the award-winning New York architect found himself engaged in what has been described as “an organized roast.”

Although many in that audience were more circumspect in their remarks, others did not hold back, likening the new building to a “Styrofoam cup” or a “metal box” akin to a Butler Building that belonged in an industrial park. The criticisms were reminiscent of the public response 10 years earlier to the “Shuttlecocks,” designed by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. And much as the “Shuttlecocks” came to be embraced by Kansas City, so too the Bloch Building, named for its major benefactor, Henry Bloch, founder of H & R Block, art collector, philanthropist and former chairman of the museum’s board of trustees, has become a point of civic pride.

Planning for the Nelson’s first major addition since the opening of the original building began nearly 25 years ago, when its leaders set out to grow the museum “physically, conceptually, and intellectually.” A design competition followed, attracting 35 proposals from around the world. A winner was chosen and ground was broken in 2001.

The winner was Steven Holl of New York City (with partner Chris McVoy). Holl was already recognized as “a rare, original talent,” and over the years he received several national and international awards for his work. Nevertheless, as then “New York Times” architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff explained: “Missing (from Holl’s opus) was the kind of project that cements an architect’s place in the pantheon: a building in which his special gifts, the full support of a client and the qualities of a site are magically fused into a near-perfect work.” That project was realized with the Bloch addition.

Holl cited two sources for his design. The first was the Nelson’s 17th-century silk handscroll “The North Sea” by Zhou Chen, which, as it rolls out, depicts a series of shifting perspectives of a secluded scholar’s hillside retreat. The second was an inscription on the façade on the southern elevation of the original building: “The soul has greater need of the ideal than of the real.”

Holl chose the second source of inspiration as the title of his original proposal in the design competition. That it was “ideal” is reflected in his decision to abandon the directive of the request for proposals to submit plans for a contemporary box-like design on the north side of the 1933 structure where a parking lot once existed. Instead Holl reimagined a radically different design that even in its dramatically contrasting perspective fully complemented and paid homage to the original building and embraced the idyllic setting and sculpture park to the south. The pairing has been described as “the stone and the feather.”

Holl’s vision was to create an “experiential” architecture rooted in a desire to connect the new addition to its physical world with a largely underground structure, capped by five above-ground “lenses” cascading southward …

This aerial view of the Bloch Building shows its five above-ground “lenses” cascading southward, perpendicular to the original Nelson-Atkins building. (Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art / photo by Tim Hursley)

Where the addition was originally planned, Holl worked with sculptor Walter de Maria for the creation of “One Sun/34 Moons,” the “gold centerpiece” of his plan.

Holl’s vision was to create an “experiential” architecture rooted in a desire to connect the new addition to its physical world with a largely underground structure, capped by five above-ground “lenses” cascading southward, descending some 55 feet, perpendicular from the original building. Practically speaking, the new building added 165,000 square feet — the equivalent of a 67-story building on its side — but the process involved numerous engineering challenges, mostly in pursuit of an environmentally sustainable building.

The most sensational accomplishment involved the innovative use of translucent glass panel walls. Holl had used such panels in his earlier buildings — Higgins Hall at Pratt Institute in New York City and the School of Art and Art History at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, for example — but this would be his first to employ the materials in a museum.

Steven Holl’s 1999 watercolor, “Bloch Building expansion and renovation,” is on view in the exhibit, “An Iconic Addition,” through Jan. 14 in the Bloch Building lobby. (image courtesy of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art)

Prior to Holl’s demonstrating that it could be done, the use of any kind of glass to illuminate art was rejected out of hand for its potential to let in ultraviolet rays destructive to most forms of art. What resulted was a design that involves multiple layers of translucent glass panels and insulating material that not only admits natural light into the galleries during the day (and, when illuminated, emits a captivating horizon of evening light), but that also gathers sun-heated air in winter and exhausts it in summer.

Also recognized (although not readily seen by most visitors) are the building’s green roof for greater insulation and control of storm water, and its “breathing Ts” — T-wall units — that reflect and refract light down into the galleries along their curved undersides while providing a hidden location for the HVAC ducts and electrical units.

Natural light streams into the building during the day, as seen in this interior view. (photo by Andy Ryan)

Perhaps more interesting to most readers is how the architects of the two structures built nearly 75 years apart differed in their approach to their buildings, yet both left an indelible mark on the city’s architectural landscape.

Thomas and William Wight, Canadian born, adopted Kansas City as their home after a brief stop in New York City with the renowned architectural firm, McKim, Meade and White. They embraced the then popular neo-classical, Beaux-Arts style, with which they designed several of the landmark buildings that still dot the city’s landscape: the Wyandotte County, Jackson County and Clay County Courthouses; the Kansas City (Missouri) City Hall; and, of course, the Nelson-Atkins Building of 1933, which they modeled after the Cleveland Art Museum built in 1916 (not designed by them).

What also sets the Wights and Holl apart, however, was the Wights’ vision: “We are building the museum on classic principles because they have been proved by the centuries. A distinctly American principle appropriate for such a building may be developed, but, so far, everything of that kind is experimental. One doesn’t experiment with two-and-a-half million dollars (the equivalent of $50 million today).” In conceiving his $95 million project, Holl had no such reservations concerning the use of “classic principles,” at least as understood by Wight and Wight.

In defining its mission, the Nelson states: “The museum is an institution that both challenges and comforts, that both inspires and soothes, and it is a destination for inspiration, reflection and connecting with others.” Nowhere has that been better demonstrated than in its Bloch addition. What was once described as “grotesque” is today referred to as “a translucent and radiant partner with the past” and “a work of haunting power” (“The New York Times”) with an “effect against the nighttime sky (which) is nothing short of magical” (“Time” magazine).

The pairing of the original 1933 structure and Holl’s addition has been described as “the stone and the feather.” (photo by Andy Ryan)

But perhaps “The New York Times” architecture critic Ouroussoff put it best: “Mr. Holl has often talked about the desire to imbue his buildings with poetry. Here he has done something more: He has created a building that sensitizes visitors to the world all around them. It’s an approach that should be studied by anyone who sets out to design a museum from this point forward.”

That said, Holl has emphatically shared credit with the jury that selected his proposal: then museum director Marc Wilson; committee chair Donald J. Hall and his wife, Adele; Henry Bloch; Morton and Estelle Sosland; and too many others to mention here. “The jury was enormously intelligent,” Holl has insisted, in that they “could envision what they never thought of.” They took a great risk and faced considerable public criticism, all the while standing by their convictions as to what would be best, as far as anyone could determine, in creating a work of art that complemented the museum’s collection. And it paid off, as the new building is largely responsible (some would point to the free admission policy adopted in 2002) for an increase in attendance from an average of 325,000 per year prior to construction to more than 550,000 at last count.

In certain light, the glass walls seem to shimmer, as seen in closeup looking southward between Lens 1 and Lens 2. (photo by Andy Ryan)

Finally, the timing of the anniversary of the opening of the Bloch addition (as well as the new state-of-the-art Bloch Gallery of Impressionist art) could not be better, as it coincides with the announcement of an agreement with neighbors and an amended Master Planned Development proposal. The proposed expansion will add much-needed space on nearby land for the museum’s growing art collection and staff. But it also promises to be the next step in the realization of a cultural district extending from the Nelson to the Country Club Plaza, incorporating the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, the Kansas City Art Institute, the University of Missouri – Kansas City and Rockhurst University.

After years of controversy, museum director Julián Zugazagoitia announced that the museum and neighborhood leaders have reached “an extraordinary agreement (that) is both respectful of the historic neighborhood and open to an exciting future for the Nelson-Atkins,” and for Kansas City. What better note could be sounded for Steven Holl’s return?

For more on the Bloch Building, visit “An Iconic Addition” in the Bloch Building lobby through Jan 14. The exhibit, curated by Sarah Biggerstaff, includes reproductions of archival materials, including some of Steven Holl’s watercolor sketches documenting the planning and construction of the Bloch addition, as well as a six-part video interview with Holl. Additionally, Holl’s sketchbook is available for viewing in the Nelson’s Spencer Art Reference Library.

Hear Holl speak at this year’s Mary Atkins Lecture, 6 p.m. Nov. 2 in the museum’s Atkins Auditorium. The lecture is brought to the museum by Mary Atkins Trustees Mary Lou Brous and Grant Burcham. For tickets and more information, 816/751.1278 or www.nelson-atkins.org.

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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