PRINT October 2007


Steven Holl’s Bloch Building

THE HIGHEST ART in architecture today is the building of homes for art. Museums are currently where we see design with clarity, making us conscious of where we are. Here not only is the act of building usually sufficiently liberated from economic constraints, but both aesthetics and community lie at the core of its purpose. This is the dream of architecture: to be more than a technical enterprise and to become a cultural endeavor central to society. Luckily, then, we are experiencing a boom in the construction of new museums and museum additions around the world; it would not be too much of an overstatement to say that the resurgence of attention to architecture in the press (if not in serious cultural debate) is the direct result of the many museums that have been constructed in the past few years. One might also speculate on the relation between this trend and the strong focus on architecture in art, from the atmospherics of Olafur Eliasson and Anish Kapoor, to the critical mimicry of Jorge Pardo, to the elegiac monuments of the Becher Schule photographers. Just as clearly focused on phenomenology and the deformation of the structures of everyday life as the architecture in which it is increasingly displayed, this art eschews the overtly political in favor of tactics of either evasion or revelation, depending on your point of view, but certainly works through intimation rather than through articulation. I am tempted to say that this art and architecture represents a new Emersonian sublime, which now has a global characteristic.

Squarely in the middle of this intimative construction of the place of art stands the work of Steven Holl, and the best proof of this position is the Bloch Building at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, which opened this past June. This 165,000-square-foot addition—designed by Holl with senior partner Chris McVoy and built by local firm Berkebile Nelson Immenschuh McDowell Architects—is an abstract condensation of what museums are all about, both in terms of organization, construction, and public function, and in the way these institutions seek to converge with (more than converse with) the aesthetic practices developed in the realms of painting, sculpture, and other media. Holl’s designs, from his early houses to buildings such as the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki, Finland, and the Bellevue Arts Museum in Bellevue, Washington, borrow canonical elements from modern art, including abstraction, collage, deformation, gestural layering, and an emphasis on the frame as much as on the content. And what he suppresses is just as important. Looking at his buildings, we find it difficult to understand how or of what they are made. There is little of the symmetry and hierarchy you might expect from traditional architecture, and almost no visual reference to the buildings’ functions.

The complex and refined Bloch Building is considerably more successful than Holl’s earlier museum efforts. Floating above the landscape of that thoroughly Midwestern metropolis, Kansas City, is a row of five quasi-rectangular masses, covered in translucent structural glass, that hover like giant sculptures during the day and glow like a light installation at night. These “lenses,” as Holl calls them, are the Bloch’s signature image. They stay in our minds through the radical dissociation of their forms and materials from what we think of as proper to buildings. The original 1933 Nelson-Atkins building, designed by Kansas City architects Wight and Wight, is a beaux-arts temple with broad stairs leading up to a central pavilion, a columned entrance, symmetrical side wings, and other details that distinguish it as an important monument. In the Bloch, stone is replaced with an almost industrial material; in place of a grand facade are five faceless structures. Holl’s smartest decision was to place his addition not to the back of the Nelson-Atkins, where the museum board had envisioned it, but in the landscaping of the Kansas City Sculpture Park developed by the late Dan Kiley and Jacquelin Robertson, who abstracted landscape and traditional gardens into fractured geometries articulated with trees, bushes, and lawns. By occupying and framing the eastern edge of this terraced garden, and flanking one side of the original building, Holl has created a collage that unites architecture (old and new), sculpture, and landscape.

The lenses, however, are just the tip of the iceberg. They are essentially skylights to illuminate a massive underground world of galleries and other rooms as well as extensive space for art loading (a semi can fit completely into the loading dock), handling, conservation, framing, and documentation. A twelve-to-sixteen-foot-wide art corridor, sections of which are two stories tall, runs beneath the whole structure, a length of 840 feet. A new two-level parking garage lies under the paved courtyard that now forms the main entrance, behind the original Nelson-Atkins building. The only ground-level hint of this bit of infrastructure is Walter De Maria’s pool-cum–light well, One Sun/34 Moons, 2002. What looks like a traditional reflecting pond on the top (with a gold-leafed podium) is actually a means of allowing aqueous light to filter, through thirty-four skylights, down into the parking garage.

A parking lot is a necessary space, but one often ignored by designers. At the Bloch Building, however, the garage is the first space where visitors encounter Holl’s plays with light above and below ground, as one moves into a cavernous space shot through with isolated shafts of light coming from above. A much more brightly lit door at the opposite end draws you through this area of filtered illumination to the museum entrance, awash with light from clerestories hovering above you in what is a three-story shaft of space rising up as soon as you enter. Then a ramp in this long, narrow lobby brings you up past the gift shop and the coat check to the information counter, where dropped-off visitors enter at the courtyard level, before swinging you around and back down another ramp that descends the hillside, past the lenses and the galleries they house, all the way to a door by which you can exit back into the landscape—completing a phenomenal journey through Holl’s manipulated landscape and the art it displays. This sequence of corridors, the starting point of the museum, is a modern-day equivalent of the grand staircase, and it is the most beautiful space Holl has ever designed. The pull of the ramps sliding by each other, the combination of clear and translucent windows and clerestories, and the elements you encounter as you move through—there is not a single false note. Everything you see draws you in and sends you on your way. It also astonishes.

It is perhaps no accident that the design of the galleries—where you can see a collection of modern art, a somewhat lost-seeming but very fine assembly of African art, and temporary exhibitions—is outside the architecture’s line of movement. This is the case in almost all recent art museums: The galleries are only the necessary background to the public spaces that jump and do somersaults to draw people and art together. Here the long corridor that leads from the lobby back out to the garden and past the galleries is devoid of art, while the galleries are full of it. In these boxes for the display of painting and sculpture, which gently descend with the slope of the hill, Holl carefully keeps his architecture out of a direct line of sight (although he could not help including beautiful handrails, designed by Chris McVoy). High above, a system of clerestories mixes northern and baffled southern light through what Holl calls “fluttering Ts,” walls with curved appendages. This is where one of the few flaws in the building lies: Although the lighting effects—when not blocked up or blacked out by curators—are beautiful, the forms seem a bit too much like bad sculpture and are surprisingly clumsy in their detailing. Here Holl’s vision of himself as an artist gets in the way of his architecture.

The other problematic area is the Isamu Noguchi Sculpture Court, a grand space in one of the “knuckles,” or transition spaces, right before the fifth lens, where visitors experience a last set of top-lit spaces before returning out into the landscape. Designed as a party space as much as a gallery, it is too large and too unfocused for the seven Noguchi works on display, while its complex play of planes detracts from the space-engaging forms of the sculptures. But these moments of architectural hubris matter little in a stunning structure that gives a sense of art in architecture as much as a place for art. You get an understanding of where you are, and where you are has been made beautiful.

Finally, lurking at the edge of the Bloch’s frame, there is the sense that it is somehow a supremely American building. This is a difficult quality to define, and I’m not sure it is something I could prove. But there is something of Bierstadt and Church, Sheeler and Demuth, Hopper and Diebenkorn, Kline and Turrell. There is something sweeping and yet alienated, bombastic and yet earthy. The fact that I cannot define it, but that the intimations of such American immortality are without a doubt in my mind present in this architecture, does not change my conviction that it is the finest American building of recent years. I am reminded of what Henry Adams said in 1893 about a similar piece of architecture in the Midwest:

On reflecting sufficiently deeply, under the shadow of Richard Hunt’s architecture, he decided that the American people probably knew no more than he did; but that they might still be driving or drifting unconsciously to some point in thought, as their solar system was said to be drifting towards some point in space; and that, possibly, if relations enough could be observed, this point might be fixed. Chicago was the first expression of American thought as a unity; one must start there.

Holl’s achievement in Kansas City is the bringing together of art that removes us from the everyday and lets us concentrate on pure, sensual experience, with an architecture that does the same. The Bloch Building is a unity of art and architecture, an unbroken glide from that all-American mode of transportation, the automobile, through top-lit caves for art, set in a midwestern landscape.

Aaron Betsky is director of the Cincinnati Art Museum.