Archive for Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Making a bold statement

June 13, 2007

Marc Wilson is leading a group of reporters through the new Bloch Building at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, where he serves as director.

He walks around a corner and puts out his arms.

"This," he said, "is one of my favorite spaces."

Several of the media members chuckle. Wilson has said this several times during the tour.

It's clear he's excited both about the new building, which is receiving a lot of attention in architectural circles, and what the building represents for the museum and for Kansas City.

The Bloch Building, which will house modern and contemporary art, as well as photography and temporary exhibitions, opened last weekend.

It adds 165,000 square feet to the museum, which previously had 234,000 square feet in a building constructed in 1933.

"This building is a result of needs," Wilson said. "If the Nelson was going to serve the community better, we needed more space."

And that space is gathering a lot of attention.

The building, designed by New York architect Steven Holl, is featured this month in Global Architecture and already was the subject of a story in The New Yorker. In the latter, the reviewer called the building "one of the best museums of the last generation."

Public sentiment hasn't always agreed with that statement through the eight-year design and building process. Two years ago, 1,200 people gathered at a nearby church, and many of them had complaints about the building.

"Every strong piece of architecture will receive criticism," Holl said. "The worst thing you can have when you think you're making great architecture is to do something that no one has anything to say about. Then you're probably just doing something banal."

For starters, the concerns centered on the location of the building -- running perpendicular to the existing Nelson-Atkins. Most architects submitting proposals situated the new building running parallel, north of the existing facility.

Second was the design itself, which Wilson calls "meandering." The building includes spaces both above ground and below ground, with five "lenses" that allow natural light into the galleries.

The building also was designed to flow well into the museum's sculpture garden. Even so, Wilson said the addition was constructed with the museum-goers' indoor experience in mind. The building is almost exclusively white and black, providing a blank backdrop for the art. Windows made of semi-translucent glass provide ever-changing lighting conditions in the galleries.

"Homogenous light is for the supermarket and Home Depot," Wilson said. "When you walk into a museum, just as you go into a hockey game, your whole body should become alive."

The building cost $94 million. It's privately funded and part of a $200 million expansion and renovation project.

Chris McVoy, a partner in Holl's architectural studio, said the end result is a starkly modern building that complements the "neoclassical temple of art" that is the 1933 structure.

"We wanted the new building to be joined at the hip with the old building, even though the two are very different," he said.

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