Bloch Building, Nelson Atkins Museum of Art – Steven Holl

Oh Steven Holl – master of phenomenology, maestro of watercolors, and creator of damn good museums. Fortunately during one of my site visits for Phil Curls Manor in Kansas City (a project I’m working on at Landon Bone Baker Architects) I was able to spend of time with a museum building I’ve long admired. Biases towards Steven Holl and museums buildings in general aside, the Bloch Building at the Nelson Atkins museum shapes light in a lovely manner. Lanterns on a hill, clad in channel glazing, diffusing light into the museum and contrasting with interior lighting. This play on light works phenomenally (get it?)

The museum becomes 5 buildings set within and connected through and under a topographical landscape. Building and terrain merge to become one, with pavilions popping up from the ground. The project it at once it’s own building pronouncing its existence to the city but yet it works as a sculpture within the grounds of the Nelson Atkins itself, taking its place among Calder, Oldenburg, Moore, and others.

The interior is where the Bloch Building really shines, allowing light to define the space without overpowering the art within. But first, a digression into the parking garage. Why, you ask? Because Steven Holl designed it (assuming with Guy Nordensen) and sculptural concrete tees + light portals = awesome parking garage.

Moving to the inside, you enter through the plaza situated between the Nelson Atkins and the Bloch buildings. Once inside ramps diverge from the main level and go down to the main circulation path of the museum and the lobby. Spatial play is quite wonderful here, a singular floor plane that ramps as necessary to connect all 5 of the “lanterns”. The lanterns create nodes of art and light on the circulation path of the museum, each on drawing you on to the next area.

The lanterns create a wonderful diffuse light no matter the orientation – all become diffused creating an even lighting throughout the museum and minimizing added lighting. In areas the channel glazing becomes clear allowing for connection to the exterior – views to the Nelson Atkins, sculpture garden, the topographical exterior path around the buildings, etc… One such area is the Noguichi court – where sculpture by Noguichi is simultaneously inside and outside, piercing the glazing as needed. No detail is too small in the Bloch building.

The piece de resistance here? The light wells and light play in the ceilings of the lanterns and buildings. The way the light filters down the quarter rounds recalls Kahn’s Kimball Art Museum. The light from the channel glazing and the electrical light sources don’t mix allowing for a play between light sources that could be seen as jarring, but I feel that it is an appropriate contrasting between natural and artificial light. The art within is pretty great, including a wonderful piece by Louise Nevelsen.

The Bloch building is such a wonderfully thought out building, and since going back in June I’ve been itching to go again. My last couple visits to KC have been for punchlisting so hopefully I can convince the project team to visit again (it shouldn’t be hard to convince them) when we go for the Ribbon Cutting in March. Both the Bloch building and Hamsunsenteret serve as sources of inspiration for me, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a painting of the Bloch coming from my hands soon.

Next up – a return to a building I wrote briefly about in 2012, but have visited many times since my move to Chicago – John Ronan’s Poetry Foundation building.

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Josh Mings

Architect and painter. Columbus, IN born, New Orleans educated, Chicago living and trying to leave the world better than I found it.