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Stone and feather: the Bloch building at the Nelson Atkins: Steven Holl's Bloch building at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is a triumph, writes Patrick McCaughey. Its delicacy memorably contrasts with the original building, and the galleries serve the museum's collections with great imagination.

The internationally renowned architect whose practice girdles the earth has become a familiar figure. Few painters or sculptors today have achieved quite the same recognition of style or name as Frank Gehry or Zaha Hadid. Amongst their most frequent patrons are American art museums. Some have caught the Bilbao virus: 'If you build it, they will come.' Others, like the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, have simply outgrown time-honoured spaces through burgeoning collections, ambitious public programmes and the desire to kick-start the institution into the new millennium. It is a pleasure to report that Steven Holl's Bloch Building for the Nelson-Atkins is both architecturally arresting, even spectacular, and demonstrably in service to the collections, the institution and the environment.

Holl won the commission hands-down in a high-powered international competition for two reasons. First, in the words of Marc Wilson, the director of the Nelson-Atkins, he 'was the only one who had a real idea' and second, because he chose a site for the new building boldly and bravely. The original 1933, neo-classical building is a huge monolith proudly set on a hill, a temple of art or, for the less reverent, the only known building west of the Rhine designed by Albert Speer. On its southern front--its principal elevation--generously proportioned terraces descend to a great lawn, flanked by shady copses. This is the site of the Kansas City Sculpture Park. It is sacred ground for Kansas, and off limits for the new building.

The northern elevation of the museum, and its principal entrance point, faced a largely vacant lot and was the obvious site for the Bloch Building, but not for Holl. He chose the narrow hillside at the eastern end of the Nelson-Atkins building and designed a series of semi-transparent pavilions, clad in luminous glass planks and embedded in the landscape. From the outset, Holl was dear that the extension would neither compete with nor obscure the 1933 building. It would form a deliberate contraposto; Holl has described the contrast as 'stone' versus 'feather' (Fig. 1).


The oppositions are absolute and thoroughgoing. The old building is monolithic and unbending compared with the Bloch Building's separate pavilions--'lenses', Holl calls them--which ramble down the hillside. Opacity changes to translucency. The Bloch Building reflects light by day and glows at night (Fig. 5). Where the sandstone mass of the Nelson-Atkins building is enclosed and self-sufficient, Holl's lenses are open in form and composed of an ever-changing relationship of parts. No two of the lenses are the same in shape and scale. The Bloch Building changes as you move around it and to grasp it, you have to move. There is a perpetual contest of the static versus the mobile, the fixed versus the variable between these two buildings. Holl's 'plot' extends visually into the environment. Whereas the Nelson-Atkins dominates from its hilltop fastness, the Bloch Building digs into the slope so that inside you are sometimes underground, at other times level with it. Externally, the Bloch Building can rear over your head; the next moment you are on its roof. It is continuously in play with the landscape, shaping it and shaped by it. The net effect provides an intense, aesthetic experience of architecture, past and present. Holl never competes with the old building: he admires, and does otherwise.


Notwithstanding, Holl joins the Bloch Building with the Nelson-Atkins in two ways, with equally satisfying solutions to what otherwise might have been a problem. Externally, on the northern court, he has placed a large reflecting pool with a strange and subtle sculpture by Walter De Maria, One Sun/34 Moons, which is both minimal and mysterious. The 'sun' consists of a square bronze and steel slab, raised just above the surface level of the water, with the minimal suggestion of the curvature of a rising or setting sun. The 'moons' are lit circular openings in the bottom of the pool, which, miraculously, allow shafts and pools of water-refracted light down into the parking garage below. (The garage, with its long barrel-vaulted, concrete trusses and stem-like columns is spectacular in itself.) Both buildings, old and new, shimmer in the reflecting pool.

The second joint comes internally. On the first floor of the old building, Holl has audaciously cut a beautifully turned double staircase that leads the visitor down into the entrance court of the Bloch Building. In the words of Holl's partner, Chris McVoy, it was like 'releasing the blocked artery' between the two buildings.

The internal strategy of the Bloch Building is no less alluring than its plot. It has two principal entrance levels--from the northern court with its pool or from the old building or garage, one level down. Both offer a dramatic geometry of ramps and stairs, internal vistas and external views--Piranesi in white plaster and glass, a building, in Holl's words, 'carved in light' (Fig. 2). All works of art have been ruthlessly banished from both entrance courts: the architectural experience reigns supreme. It overstates Holl's intentions to suggest that art and architecture are kept apart throughout the Bloch Building. (The strategy is more akin to withholding.) But if you bypass the sequence of galleries and take the walkway or internal street that runs along the garden side of the Bloch Building, the walls are blank and the niches and corners empty of sculptures or objects. You are rewarded at the journey's end with two beautiful rooms: a gallery of Sol LeWitt white sculptures (Fig. 6) and the Noguchi court, which looks full-face out on to the sculpture park. With the resonance of the Noguchi bronzes and stones animating the space, Holl achieves a perfect marriage between the work of art, the landscape and the building.


Philip Johnson once famously remarked that before the enclosure of space or the creation of mass, architecture was essentially 'progression in time'. This is exactly what Holl has achieved in his 840ft-long Bloch Building. Its strategy, to reveal as well as to withhold, comes to complete fruition in the succession of galleries, which house the Nelson-Atkins's collection of post-1945 painting and sculpture, its large photographic collection and, somewhat anomalously, its African collection.

At first the galleries feel relatively conventional after the pyrotechnics of the entrance courts. Little or no natural light filters into the first sequence of galleries. That may be the result of curatorial timidity, which has generally closed tight shutters that otherwise would allow light to spill through the spaces. But as the galleries flow down the hill, the hint of conventionality falls away. Each gallery is shaped differently and the architectural resonances, particularly in the treatment of ceilings and upper walls, grow as you progress through the rooms. The works of art come to life on these walls and in these spaces, no longer encapsulated in a series of white cubes. Holl's details are as telling as his grander plots and strategies. You descend into the galleries by a short set of black marble stairs. They are only a few steps but Holl turns them at a right angle in mid-step so that you focus and then shift focus on the gallery you are stepping into. You are conscious of being moved through the space.

In galleries as good as these, collections live or die. There is no place to hide. The Nelson-Atkins's collection of post-1945 art turns out to be absorbing and idiosyncratic. Only in Kansas would the story be told in such a strongly figurative and realist manner. You feel it in the first gallery devoted to abstract expressionism. The masterpieces of the group are Willem de Kooning's Woman IV (1952-53; Fig. 3) and the Jackson Pollock alongside it from his black and white series of 1951-52, with their abbreviated references to the figure. The room concludes, on a high note, with a figurative painting by Richard Diebenkorn. The wall text in the next gallery asserts the claims of realism. Neil Welliver and Andrew Wyeth, Fairfield Porter and Wayne Thiebaud share the space with a prairie landscape by a local artist, Keith Jacobshagen. Pop is naturally well represented in this visual culture and there is a handsome gallery devoted to minimalism and its cognate styles. The collection has the stamp of conviction and taste, but a taste formed well away from New York. It is neither provincial in quality nor parochial in range, but it does have a strong regional flavour.


Of the three special exhibitions that mark the opening, 'Manet to Matisse--Impressionist Masters from the Marion and Henry Bloch Collection' outshines the large and worthy 'Developing Greatness: The Origins of American Photography'. The Bloch collection comprises just 30 works, almost all of museum quality and more. Remarkably, it has been assembled between the late 1970s and the late 1990s: it may perhaps be the last of its kind to be formed. The leading impressionists and post-impressionists are all represented with major works and not simply anthology pieces. Manet's The Croquet Party (1871; Fig. 4), for instance, is a strange, brooding work whose tenebrous atmosphere is at odds with the scene depicting a leisured moment amongst friends. Joachim Pissarro, in the exceptional catalogue to the exhibition, notes the proximity of the painting to the defeat and abject surrender of the French forces to Prussia and the ensuing brutalities of the Commune. Other riches include Van Gogh's Restaurant Rispal at Asnieres, a Monet snow scene at Argenteuil, Pissarro's sparkling afternoon view of the Rue Saint-Honore, a muscular Caillebotte of the Seine at Argenteuil and a sumptuous 1931 Bonnard, The White Cupboard.


Steven Holl's Bloch Building at the Nelson-Atkins makes a fair bid to be the best of the new architecture now enriching American art museums. No architect or museum director can afford to neglect or ignore it.

Patrick McCaughey is a former director of the Wadsworth Atheneum and the Yale Center for British Art. His Bert & Ned: The Correspondence of Albert Tucker and Sidney Nolan was published by the Miegunyah Press last year.
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Author:McCaughey, Patrick
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2007
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