Sunday, July 22, 2012

In Praise of Light and Shadow: The Bloch Building at the Nelson-Atkins

Such is our way of thinking—we find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates.
- Junihiro Tanazaki, In Praise of Shadows

5 years after it opened, I finally made it to the Bloch Building at the Nelson-Atkins Museum with my dad (while back in Kansas City for the All Star Game).  The last time I was there, it was still under construction, and Maura, Wade and I were shooed off of the roofscape by an irritated security guard.  This time, I was able to appreciate the Steven Holl-designed tour-de-force in totality.  With the possible exception of the beautiful siting and procession through the landscape and around the buildings, the outstanding attribute of the Bloch is its treatment of light.  Since the 5 buildings of the Bloch are referred to as "lenses" (by Holl) or as "lanterns" (by everybody else), this makes sense.  The sculpting of daylight is most obvious within the museum, where the ceiling and walls have been carved and curved away from the clerestories.  But it's also being done on the exterior surfaces, such as in the pronounced board formwork of the site cast concrete retaining walls leading down to Rockhill Road along the east edge of the site, the shadows of which accentuate the lines of the landscape.

View of Bloch Building along Rockhill Road

And in the slight kinking of the channel glass facade, which creates a subtle contrast between surfaces of the lanterns, and between the lanterns and the hues of the sky.

The Bloch Building in relation to the original museum, as seen from the South

The embankments of the landscape rise to envelope the museum below, so the lenses are not actually separate buildings, but portions of the building rising above the landscaped roof to create clerestories and atria bathed in soft, natural light.

View of the Bloch Building from the North.  The original museum is to the right and behind the camera, and the sculpture garden is down the hill to the right.

An aerial view helps to clarify what's going on:

Aerial view from West (courtesy of Google Maps)
A clean system of channel glass and stainless steel fittings and trim enhances the perception of the buildings as massive geometric objects emerging from the ground.

One of the lanterns embedded into the landscaped roof, along with coping and base details

Visitors enter at the North end, which is largely above ground.  The atrium is washed in a soft, bright daylight filtering through an innovative wall system developed with Heintges (curtain wall consultants).  Bendheim Glass fabricated a custom 16" wide double-skin channel glass module infilled with Okapane, a translucent light-diffusing insulating material composed of acrylic tubes.  The rhythm of the three-story glass wall is traversed by a cascading staircase leading from the upper lobby to administrative spaces above (I believe).  

Main Atrium of the Bloch Building

Against the brightness of the atrium, the adjoining galleries and the entrance to the original building stand in stark contrast.  The sequence modulates from light to dark and shades between, leading to stunning moments such as below, where the ceiling peels away to capture the sunlight once more.   

Clerestories formed by "cutting away" the landscape from the building

At certain points, the translucent veil is lifted--at the entrance, at the connection to the sculpture garden.  Instead of creating an atmospheric glow or a subdued dimness, the design selectively frames a focal point without.

Connection from Bloch Building to sculpture garden.  Sculptures by Isamu Noguchi can be seen in the foreground.

Even the parking garage, that most utilitarian of structures, cannot escape the penetrating gaze of the Sun.  The undulating concrete roof is punctuated by circular skylights carved into the base of the reflecting pool above, giving the sunbeams a playful air as the water dances across the lens.

Parking garage, beneath the reflecting pool

One of my favorite pieces in the museum's collection also happened to involve a dramatic manipulation of light and shadow: a three-dimensional mural by the Argentine-born French artist Luis Tomasello.  Tomasello is known for creating the Atmosphère chromoplastique, in which white geometric objects with (oftentimes) colored backsides are arranged on a white surface, so that the resulting shadows take on the hue of the color.  It's quite beautiful, and and a striking subversion of traditional notions of color and shadow.

Luis Tomasello, "Chromoplastic Mural"

For further exploration into Tomasello's work, process, philosophy and influences, check out this interview with the artist, helpfully posted by the Nelson Atkins.  It's in French, but fear not... there are subtitles.

If you ever find yourself in Kansas City--or Wichita or Omaha or St. Louis, even--I cannot recommend highly enough a trip to the Nelson-Atkins, whether you're an art enthusiast, an archi-tourist, or both.  And if you finish and feel a little too high fallutin', shift gears and treat yourself to some Gates barbecue.

UPDATE: Marc Fink from Bendheim Wall Systems (which supplied the custom Lamberts channel glass) has helpfully written to fill in the blanks regarding the rest of the design/construction team for glass at the Bloch:

Managing Architect: BNIM
General Contractor: JE Dunn
Glaziers: Carter Glass
Structural Engineer: Kelley Gipple

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