The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., is a serene neoclassical building from 1933. A stately terraced lawn with a sculpture garden pours down from the grand south entrance. Nine years ago, when the museum's director, Marc Wilson, and his trustees decided it was time to expand, they began a search for architects. Eventually they whittled the list down to six. Nearly all the finalists proposed building on the parking lot at the building's rear, a location that wouldn't interfere with its grand façade. Only Steven Holl dared to suggest an addition that would cascade down the eastern edge of the great lawn. Not only that, the expansion would actually be a series of pavilions, translucent glass enclosures over gallery spaces located mostly underground. He called them lenses. Most of them would be oddly shaped, and at night they would glow from within.
This may not sound like an idea that would go over in Kansas City, but the local opposition, what there was of it, folded long ago. Beauty is an argument that doesn't take no for an answer. And when you're confronted with something as haunting and luminous as the Bloch building, as the new addition is now called, what other word will do? At twilight, when their interior lights come on, the lenses have a milky refulgence, radiating gently against the sky. In daylight, when the glass loses that ectoplasmic glow, there are a few dead zones along the exterior, stretches that have the featureless feel of shed walls. But to keep the eye occupied, Holl plays with the forms and arrangement of the five lenses, bending and dipping them as the hilly site also bends and dips. As you stroll down the slope, the building unfolds in surprising episodes. There's nothing quite like it anywhere else in the U.S.
What Holl has produced, working with his senior partner, Chris McVoy, is something that doesn't merely mimic the classicism of the older museum building but reformulates it in 21st century terms. As Holl puts it, he promised Wilson and the museum's trustees that "the new will be as new as can be, but the old will be preserved." If anything, he amplified the classicism of the space behind the old building by positioning the longest and most conventionally rectangular of his lenses at a perpendicular to the museum's rear façade. That created a square courtyard with a serene reflecting pool where the parking lot used to be.
Once you get inside, classical references are out, plunging diagonals are in. And though the gallery spaces are intricately conceived, they don't compete with the art, a complaint that's been raised against Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and Daniel Libeskind's addition to the Denver Art Museum. "I wanted a building that artists would appreciate," says Holl. So at eye level the galleries maintain their composure. It's overhead where he gets busier, playing with tilted ceilings and oversize curving alcoves that operate like cloud formations--meaning there's always something interesting going on up there, but gently enough that it doesn't demand your full attention.
Holl has long simmered on the edge of superstardom. Until now, he was best known for a handful of highly regarded projects: a superb little church in Seattle, a much talked-about museum in Helsinki. But his tough-minded aesthetic positions have sometimes worked against him. Last year the artist Richard Tuttle and his wife aired complaints in the New York Times about a guesthouse Holl had designed for them. Then last fall Holl exited a Denver courthouse project after a series of disagreements. So the Bloch building is not just a triumph; it's a timely one. Those five glowing lenses are the kind of thing that can put your career in a whole new light.