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This Bright Idea Is a Glowing Achievement

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 20, 2007

KANSAS CITY -- At dusk, when the wide-open Midwestern sky is still saturated with a pale golden light, the glass shells of the new addition to this city's premier art museum glow with a force that is both organic and unearthly. Cascading down a gentle, grassy hillside, the five luminous boxes designed by architect Steven Holl seem to channel light directly out of the ground. They are lighted by high-efficiency fluorescent bulbs -- a welcome nod to energy conservation, given that the museum plans to keep them illuminated much of the night, every night after the new wing opens June 9. But the glow coming from inside makes one wonder if Holl's new building is really a collection of tanks holding phosphorescent water, or a terrarium of glowworms, or an aviary for fireflies. It is a magical sight.

And, no doubt, a huge relief for the Nelson-Atkins Museum, which commissioned Holl to design the new Bloch Building addition to its 1933 main hall. Holl's reputation has suffered of late, since he parted ways with officials in Denver, where he was designing a new courthouse. Then there was a little fracas when the owners of a Holl-designed house in New Mexico called their new home over-budget and unlivable in a prominent magazine article.

Not only are the leaders of the Nelson-Atkins unveiling a $196 million project by a controversial architect, they're doing it at a moment of reaction in the museum design world. Stung by criticism that high-concept museums such as Frank Gehry's in Bilbao, Spain, or Daniel Libeskind's new space in Denver are ill-serving the art they are meant to showcase, the museum world is thinking hard about the virtues of celebrity architecture.

But as Nelson-Atkins curators rush to install art in the new space, it's clear that they have received exactly what they hoped for when they chose Holl over five other architects in a 1999 competition. The art is well served, the building is entirely complementary to its austere companion, and the winds of local reaction seem to be blowing favorably.

Holl's design is a bold move forward in the endless argument about how to expand or add onto older buildings. Much of the exhibition space is below ground, but the building doesn't feel subterranean. Light flows in and through the space, and there's no sense that the addition is merely a functional basement meant to be hidden from view.

Fully transparent windows crop up here and there, framing views of the original museum, which sits atop a grassy slope with the massive solidity of something built by a pharaoh, yet decorated -- surprisingly, perversely, cleverly -- with the Ionic columns of a Greek temple. It is a Beaux-Arts folly with a distinctive profile, but thankfully there are no coy "echoes" embedded with post-modern glibness into the new space. No attempt was made to build a 2007 version of the 1933 stone pile.

"That would have been a travesty," says Marc F. Wilson, director of the Nelson-Atkins. "What, we don't have confidence in the architecture of our time?"

All along, as the design generated criticism, and as the new buildings were rising and scaring the not-in-my-backyard bejesus out of the museum's neighbors, Holl has said the building would make no sense until you move around inside it. He's right. From the outside, his glass boxes look almost temporary. The sandblasted glass feels almost like fabric, or perhaps plastic, stretched over framing that is deceptively spindly. These could be high-tech tents, or collapsible, modular storage spaces, or temporary airplane hangars. Except there's a strong air of intentionality about it all. They are sculpted into the hillside with no seam between the glass and the grass, as if the earth has been casually draped over them. There is a strong sense of flow, of a purposely artless arrangement. They are orderly and disorderly at the same time. None of this could happen by accident.

Where the old space is solid and almost windowless, Holl's is translucent and seemingly provisional. Where the old building dominates the land, the new one nestles into it. Where the old building announces its purpose with high-minded language about art and humanity carved into its stone walls, the new one is enigmatic and playful. Yet, for a building that is almost a philosophical inversion of the 1933 space, Holl's wing doesn't feel discordant. Taken together, it is a marriage of contrasts, perhaps most moving at the joint between new and old, where the carved limestone doors of the 1933 building are framed by the lobby of the new space. For a moment, you might think the point of the whole thing was to exhibit those doors, as if they were yet more art pillaged from Egypt and bought up by the robber barons of flyover.

Wilson describes the relationship differently, using pragmatic and legalistic language that seems intended to reassure possessive locals that the beloved 1933 space hasn't been upstaged. The old building, he says, has "a brand-new junior partner which functions to strengthen the senior partner." He says that the museum never sought out a flashy space, that the purpose from the beginning was driven by the need to serve the art. Money was raised before Holl was chosen, so the ugly dynamic of dangling a celebrity architect in front of potential donors -- remember the Corcoran's plans for a Frank Gehry addition? -- never happened. There was no intent to build a civic monument.

"If it has an impact on tourism, fine," says Wilson. "But that was not part of the discussion. That's totally collateral."

Of course, it may well have a big impact on tourism as word gets out. And despite Wilson's insistence that the building was always meant to serve the art, it has jaw-dropping spaces. The largest of the five boxes -- Holl calls them "lenses" -- has a long, gently sloped and very narrow staircase that seems suspended in midair. It is, in fact, hung from a huge beam disguised as the handrail. The glass panels -- constructed in Germany -- along the wall facing into the museum's new front courtyard seem to be a simple, lightweight cladding, but as you study them, they don't seem to be clad onto anything strong enough to hold them. They are, in fact, hung from a huge cantilevered beam hidden from view. The simplicity of the outside skin of the building entirely hides the drama of its structural support.

"It defies logic," says Casey Cassias Jr. of BNIM architects, the local firm that carried out Holl's design. Yet, "you don't think as you walk through, 'How did they do that?' "

Instead, the eye is captivated by a weird geometry of lines and planes, a play of angles that might be called, paradoxically, both serene and expressionistic. No ceiling is quite parallel to the ground, no hallway perfectly straight. It is as if someone had whitewashed the set to the old German horror classic "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." And yet it is soothing space, with ample access to the great green lawn just outside.

And the art feels happy in it. A room of Noguchi sculpture displays the work with ample air between the pieces. Cabinets with ceramics project into the main corridor but don't feel intrusive. The light in the photography galleries is kept low -- there are more than 200 stunning daguerreotypes on view for one of the museum's opening exhibitions -- but you don't feel as if you're stepping from daylight into the shadows. There are flat surfaces for paintings -- the museum's contemporary art has moved into the new galleries, opening up room for more prominent display of its Native American collection in the old building -- yet there are also almost Gothic displays of flowing curves and arches overhead.

It would be nice to announce that Holl had somehow solved the problem of joining new and old in a way that other architects might emulate. But unlike the 1933 building next to it, which borrows from a long-established vernacular, Holl's Bloch Building doesn't announce any particularly obvious principles that can be easily repeated. The flow of the building is dependent on the very particular landscape of the park it sits in. Covering the building in glass turned out to be terribly complex and not a little on the expensive side, with 3,000 of its 6,000 panels individually sized. It was, as one local put it, "like building a Swiss watch out of concrete." Whereas Gehry's Bilbao museum sold the world on a repeatable "Gehry" style, what Holl did in Kansas City is likely to stay in Kansas City.

Holl is known as a cerebral architect, but not all of his work suggests depth. His dormitory at MIT is known among students as "the sponge building" because of its many little window openings and the weird, twisting shapes that are carved into an otherwise rectilinear box. The kids are right about it: The building looks like a sponge. Now let's move on.

But the Bloch Building has more depth, more room for argument, more self-contradiction. It is modest but assertive. The things that are showy about it aren't obvious on first glance. Even from the outside, there are many angles from which the building is barely visible. It is prominent, yet tucked away at the same time.

It satisfies a need for simplicity and complexity -- which may be the fundamental philosophical tension of our time. We live in a world in which there seems to be a drought of both clarity and depth. Holl's glass boxes sunk in a hill have both. Literally.

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