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Architecture

Another museum that's a work of art

The Bloch Building, in Kansas City, is playful and inventive

The Bloch Building, a new wing of Kansas City's Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, opened in June. It is the work of Steven Holl, who designed Simmons Hall dormitory at MIT. The Bloch Building, a new wing of Kansas City's Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, opened in June. It is the work of Steven Holl, who designed Simmons Hall dormitory at MIT. (Roland halbe/nelson-atkins museum of art)
Email|Print| Text size + By Robert Campbell
Globe Correspondent / January 13, 2008

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - All over the country - all over the world, in fact - cities are building new art museums, or enlarging the ones they have.

A surge of new buildings like this, all of a single kind, doesn't occur very often. What our blizzard of museums reminds you of is the Middle Ages in Western Europe, when every city and town seemed to be erecting a cathedral.

And indeed, it can be argued that the art museum, too, is a place where we gather with our neighbors to engage in something rather like worship. As the philosopher Nietzsche famously said, God is dead, and all we have left is art.

Museums now are like movies or celebrities. There's a hot new performer every year. The current media darling is the Bloch Building, a new wing of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, which is the major art museum in Kansas City. The architect is Steven Holl, of New York, best known in Boston for his amazing, sometimes controversial Simmons Hall dormitory at MIT. The Bloch is amazing too, but it isn't controversial. It's been just about everybody's pick as the best American building of 2007.

The Bloch, which opened in June, deserves its laurels. It's something museums often aren't. It's playful and inventive. It aspires to be, itself, a sculpture in a garden. You can say, therefore, that it includes itself in its own collection.

The Bloch consists of five crystalline glass shapes that seem to be pushing themselves upward out of the earth. In daylight, it's as if icebergs were emerging from a green, sloping midwestern lawn. At night, when the crystal shapes are lit from within, they look like a fleet of UFOs that just landed. The glowing shapes are a mysterious, beautiful, unforgettable sight, perfectly set off by the darker shape of the original Nelson-Atkins that rises behind them.

Each of the crystals houses a gallery inside. Half dug into the earth and half rising above it, they spill down the sloping lawn. The lawn is a sculpture garden designed, originally, by the late, great landscape architect Dan Kiley. The Bloch invades part of Kiley's lawn, but leaves most of it intact.

You stroll down through the galleries one at a time. They're connected by sloping links. The galleries are more or less random in shape, which makes them feel more like natural forms than man-made. When you get to the bottom, you turn around and go back up, but you don't have to repeat your journey. There's variety in the routes you can take. The museum never repeats itself. At the top, the Bloch expands into a big skylit entry lobby, which opens directly into the old Nelson-Atkins. Most of the glass is translucent, not transparent, so you get a shadowless "cloudy bright" kind of light.

The great feature of the Bloch, which never occurred to me until I was there, is that it's free. Because it's free, nobody has to guard the doors. That means you can wander in and out of the Bloch, through its glass walls, anywhere along its length. When you do so you find yourself in the terracing sculpture gardens. The outdoor gardens are as important, in principle, as the indoor galleries. Visitors who know the Louisiana Museum in Denmark will recognize its influence here, an influence Holl happily admits.

Holl worked with a Kansas City firm, Berkebile Nelson Immenschuh McDowell.

I didn't like everything about the Bloch. For one thing, the translucent glass roofs of the galleries are not allowed to light the artworks below. They create only an ambient light, up above your head somewhere. The paintings and sculptures are lit artificially. The museum's director, Marc Wilson, who took me around, explained that he wanted to be able to control the light. Holl says the skylights could be opened to shed more light and he wishes they were. He claims that his glass system is so protective that it would create less potentially harmful ultra-violet radiation than do the artificial bulbs.

A worse problem is the undeveloped outdoor garden. It's not nearly as interesting as it needs to be. There should be more art in it, and far more interesting plantings. Maybe even a place to snack among the sculptures.

Finally, the Bloch's entry hall feels vast and empty. Wilson, though, has cleverly placed paintings in the old museum in a way that entices you forward to check them out.

For a city like Boston, the Bloch offers a challenge. We Bostonians are, of course, sprouting new art museums like crocuses in spring. The city currently has no fewer than three of them complete or in progress, all by prominent architects. The Institute of Contemporary Art opened its new building, by the firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro of New York, on the harborfront a year ago. The Museum of Fine Arts is well into construction of a major addition by the British architect Lord Norman Foster. And the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum hopes soon to begin building an addition by the Italian Renzo Piano. Both Piano and Foster are winners of the Pritzker prize, architecture's equivalent of a Nobel.

Not only that, but we've recently seen a superb addition to the Peabody Essex Museum, in Salem, by architect Moshe Safdie. Harvard's Fogg Art Museum is in the process of shutting down for a complete gut overhaul with additions by Piano. Currently on the back burner, but still alive, is a design for a smaller Harvard art museum in Allston, by Los Angeles architect Kevin Daly. And last time we looked, two new museums were being proposed for sites on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway. The latter won't strictly be art museums, but they'll be displaying cultural materials.

The museum game is, partly, a sporting event (so were the cathedrals). Can Boston outscore Kansas City? Can we come up with something as original, as delightful, as elegantly wedded to its site?

In this era of green concerns, for instance, should any of our new museums seek to interact with the natural world, as does the Bloch? Maybe the Greenway museums will do that. Early on, the ICA considered a proposal for an "art barge" that would tour Boston Harbor from a dock at the museum, bringing art to many waterside neighborhoods. That would have been a seaport's way of engaging the outdoors.

What I like best about the Bloch was that it isn't a stand-alone, look-at-me building. Its inventiveness isn't employed to make some big sculptural statement. Everything about it, instead, is a reaching out for connections - to the site, to the old museum, and (for free) to the members of the public. It's a garden piece as much as a work of architecture.

Robert Campbell is the Globe's architecture critic. He can be reached at camglobe@aol.com.

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