Against Architecture as an Object

architect Steven Holl
project Museum addition and renovation of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, USA
written by Vladimir Krstić

PDF Download: Click here.

In recent years the American architectural scene has been distinctly marked by a number of museum projects authored by both foreign and native architects. This design proliferation of an important building type that frames an introspective dialogue of society with itself, its values and aspirations, has generated significant architectural works. Compared to such a context, the building that stands apart by the quality of conceptual thinking and corresponsive material execution is the Bloch Building addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City by Steven Holl Architects.


From its very inception this project was based on iconoclastic foundations. By rewriting and working against the competition brief (changing the building’s prescribed siting position and relation to the existing museum building), Steven Holl was able to illuminate the client as to the unforeseen possibilities for a more meaningful addition design and procure a daring design commission. As it stands completed, the building has lived up to its original promise not only as an outstanding art museum facility but, moreover, as a work of architecture that challenges the very canon of the specific building typology vis a vis the ever persistent question of the relationship of art and architecture in the function of holding and allowing for the experience of art. If the commanding neoclassical presence of the original Nelson-Atkins Museum building epitomizes a traditional idea of an art museum – an imposing architectural object whose formal authority resides in the function of producing a framing device that emplaces the art and in doing so confers a sense of authenticity upon it – then Steven Holl’s Bloch building addition comes into being as its very antithesis. In a sense it could be argued that there is no ‘building’ here to speak of. The object of the former museum’s incarnation appears to have been exchanged for the extruded topography of the landscaped grounds and the elusive ephemera of the luminous ‘events’ of the gallery lenses that intercept the ground surface materializing more as sublimated shadows of the cyclical passage of time rather than incantations of physical matter. However the most critical instance of the conceptual dismantling of the traditional idea of an art museum is generated by the experiential construction of the main entry sequence. The Bloch Building addition is approached and entered through the subterranean car park which effectively eliminates the visual preexistence of the museum building as an object to be entered. It unfolds as a pure interiority – a space devoid of a sense of the object that holds it. In that even the car park has been subjugated to the genetic typological rewriting and transformed into a realm of public appearance where instances of people and their machines are cast into a mesmerizing twilight space spelled by the diffracted natural light that seeps through the underside apertures of Walter De Maria’s One Sun/34 Moons reflecting pool sculpture cut into the garage’s precast ceiling slabs. The thus initiated museum space gathers into its own as a perpetually extending territory of the inside where the draw of the topography afoot dissolves into radiant weightlessness of the white impregnated walls. While experimentation with the use of channel glass in Steven Holl’s projects dates back to the Kiasma Museum and beyond, it could be argued that in the Bloch Building he was able to fully capture the phenomenal essence of the material and make it the stuff of the very architectural conception where space and matter merge indelibly into one. The seamless continuum of the channel glass with the white of the finish plaster masterfully neutralizes a sense of material antipodes transforming the enclosing opacity of the museum walls into vaporous depth of radiating light that envelops everything in its chalky glow. Consequently, museum space materializes as an aberrant presence amalgamated by the luminous and temporal phenomena that intersect in it (and not as a physical artifact generated by the inscription of its boundaries). Its power to envelop, emplace and hold is of cinematic intensity. Its experiential structure is one of interiority, of perpetual within which all that is and exists is held with no conscience and possibility of the without position (as there is no exterior to the cinematic frame). In such a context the topological definition of art, its apprehension as an object of cultural consumption defined by the institution that holds it, is subverted towards the experience of art as an event that claims and marks its own place (presence) in the unfolding of the museum’s spatial narrative. This narrative, however, given the ingeniousness of the museum plan that allows for varied passages through the gallery spaces, is closer to a Tarkovskian montage fable woven anew and differently by each individual as they seek their own encounters with the art.


What otherwise could be an autistic visual grasp of the art and space upon an individual is subsequently subverted by two critical design facets that divest experience of single-dimensionality. The first is the strategic incision of the clear glass apertures in the domineering opacity of the channel glass walls that frame controlled views of the exterior world, primarily the original Nelson-Atkins Museum building. Their main purpose is not necessarily to provide a reference for that what lies outside of the confines of the Bloch Building’s interior space but to create a counterpoint to it: our former position and the look we are casting back at ourselves as a double reality (and our double position) that we may be inhabiting as we experience art – the inverse voyeuristic position in which we become introspectively the subject of our own gaze as we ponder our own reality through the medium of art. This is particularly obvious in the Noguchi court where the installation of his work transgresses the boundaries of the glass wall, collapsing the topological difference of inside and outside.

Ultimately the museum space terminates analogous to the conceptual premise of its origin circumscribed by the unrelenting desire to dismantle the traditional object presence of the museum building. The opposite longitudinal point to the car park entry space is the unfolding of the museum’s interior into constructed landscape, its spatial viscera doubled over itself as its own topography. The form and space reversely locked into an uninterrupted and continually extending territory of the gallery stage that resists coalescing into a building. What endures is a sublime experience of art absent of the conscience of an architectural object. Yet in that very instance, as a material vestige of the constructed effect, architecture is revealed (and recreated) in its essence – its substance ineffable but profound, born out of conceptual bliss grounded in the immaculate command of matter and form.