The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art / Steven Holl Architects

Architects: Steven Holl Architects
Location: Kansas City, MO,
Architects: Steven Holl, Chris McVoy (design architect), Chris McVoy (partner in charge), Martin Cox, Richard Tobias (project architect), Masao Akiyoshi, Gabriela Barman-Kraemer, Matthias Blass, Molly Blieden, Elissavet Chryssochoides, Robert, Edmonds, Simone Giostra, Annette Goderbauer, Mimi Hoang, Makram El-Kadi, Edward Lalonde, Li Hu, Justin Korhammer, Linda Lee, Fabian Llonch, Stephen O’Dell, Irene Vogt, Urs Vogt, Christian Wassmann (project team)
Local Architect: BNIM Architects
Project Year: 1999-2007
Structural Engineer: Guy Nordenson and Associates
Mechanical Engineer: Ove Arup & Partners / W.L. Cassell & Associates
Consultant: R.A. Heintges & Associates
Lighting Consultant: Renfro Design Group
Landscape Architect: Gould Evans Goodman Associates
Artist: Walter De Maria
Budget: US $200,000,000
Constructed Area: 15,329 sqm
Photographs: ©Andy Ryan

The expansion of The Nelson Atkins Museum of Art fuses architecture with landscape to create an experiential architecture that unfolds for visitors as it is perceived through each individual’s movement through space and time. The new addition, named the Bloch Building, engages the existing sculpture garden, transforming the entire Museum site into the precinct of the visitor’s experience. The new addition extends along the eastern edge of the campus, and is distinguished by five glass lenses, traversing from the existing building through the Sculpture Park to form new spaces and angles of vision. The innovative merging of landscape, architecture and art was executed through close collaboration with museum curators and artists, to achieve a dynamic and supportive relationship between art and architecture. As visitors move through the new addition, they will experience a flow between light, art, architecture and landscape, with views from one level to another, from inside to outside.

The threaded movement between the light-gathering lenses of the new addition weaves the new building with the landscape in a fluid dynamism based on a sensitive relationship to its context. Rather than an addition of a mass, the new elements exist in complementary contrast with the original 1933 classical “Temple to Art”:

- Original Building New (in Complementary Contrast)
- Opaque Transparent
- Heavy Light
- Hermetic Meshing
- Inward views Views to landscape
- Bounded Unbounded
- Directed Circulation Open Circulation
- Single Mass Transparent lenses

The first of the five “lenses” forms a bright and transparent lobby, with café, art library and bookstore, inviting the public into the Museum and encouraging movement via ramps toward the galleries as they progress downward into the garden. From the lobby a new cross-axis connects through to the original building’s grand spaces. At night the glowing glass volume of the lobby provides an inviting transparency, drawing visitors to events and activities. The lenses’ multiple layers of translucent glass gather, diffuse and refract light, at times materializing light like blocks of ice. During the day the lenses inject varying qualities of light into the galleries, while at night the sculpture garden glows with their internal light. The “meandering path” threaded between the lenses in the Sculpture Park has its sinuous complement in the open flow through the continuous level of galleries below. The galleries, organized in sequence to support the progression of the collections, gradually step down into the Park, and are punctuated by views into the landscape.

The design for the new addition utilizes sustainable building concepts; the sculpture garden continues up and over the gallery roofs, creating sculpture courts between the lenses, while also providing green roofs to achieve high insulation and control storm water. At the heart of the addition’s lenses is a structural concept merged with a light and air distributor concept: “Breathing T’s” transport light down into the galleries along their curved undersides while carrying the glass in suspension and providing a location for HVAC ducts. The double-glass cavities of the lenses gather sun-heated air in winter or exhaust it in summer. Optimum light levels for all types of art or media installations and seasonal flexibility requirements are ensured through the use of computer-controlled screens and of special translucent insulating material embedded in the glass cavities. A continuous service level basement below the galleries offers art delivery, storage and handling spaces, as well as flexible access to the “Breathing-Ts”.

The ingenious integration of art and architecture included a collaborative effort with artist Walter De Maria, one of the great minimalist artists of our time. De Maria’s sculpture, One Sun /34 Moons, is the centerpiece of the expansive granite-paved entrance plaza with a reflecting pool that forms a new entry space shaped by the existing building and the new Lobby “Lens”. The “moons” of the art work are circular skylight discs in the bottom of the pool that project water-refracted light into the garage below. Conceived as a vehicular Arrival Hall, the garage is generously proportioned, directly connected to the new museum lobby on both levels, and spanned with continuous undulating vaults by an innovative pre-cast concrete ‘wave-T’.

A strong relationship between the architectural concept and the Museum’s important oriental art holdings is illustrated by works in the permanent collection such as Verdant Mountains (12th century) by Chiang Shen or The North Sea (16th century) by Chou Ch’en, which demonstrate the timeless merging of art, architecture and landscape. The new addition celebrates this fusion with the new Isamu Noguchi Sculpture Court, setting a binding connection to the existing Sculpture Gardens.

Cite: "The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art / Steven Holl Architects" 30 Jul 2008. ArchDaily. Accessed 22 May 2015. <>
  • John

    I find this a bit insensitive towards the original building, I don’t know… but it looks very clean and well detailed. When you work on a building this simple the execution needs to be flawless.

  • David Basulto

    I like the promenade with this light boxes over the landscape.

  • vp

    I really like most buildings Steven Holl’s office designs. I think nama is a simple, yet beautiful rendering of light. Opaque walls create a near surreal atmosphere in the photographs (Sadly I haven’t had the chance to visit in person yet).
    I find some of the facades and forms a bit awkward, but it all blends into the whole quite seamlessly. And this “clumsiness” that turns into something amazing is quite typical in Holl’s work.
    This extension relies on contrast of form and material instead of sensitivity (a perfectly useful tool). The connection to the old museum is designed seamlessly and unimposingly, so the mass and form of the old building are intact. This connection displays the finer and more sensitive element of the design. However I agree somewhat with John – “lenses” are so radically removed from the old building that I would like to see more space between the main building and lens 1 of the extension. Otherwise I like the design very much.

  • Dewey Chapman

    Can I add this article and images with a few of my own to my blog. I am sick of people thinking kansas city a cow town. Done photography shoots for the nelson expansion of the ford wing or art center

  • David Basulto


    Sure you can, just link back to the original source and give credits to the photographer.

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  • ZUZU

    light & space are the expressive element in SH`s works.however,all of the pieces of “phenomenon” are based on particular structure and detail design.

  • Md

    the other elevations plz

  • Lucas Gray

    This is a stunning piece of architecture. I can’t wait to visit it.

  • Jenny

    The light is great here. I love SH’s designs, especially the refurbishment of NYU Department of Philosophy.

  • Tim Rudloff

    I visited this museum while driving from Las Vegas to Philly in the summer of ’08. I had limited previous knowledge of the museum, but still knew it was a significant work, so I decided to check it out.

    This building is so simple, yet so dramatic in many ways. Some say it does not compliment the original building, but I think it is perfectly appropriate. Sure, you have a stone neoclassical building adjacent to a contemporary modern design, but there are similarities to the two. My theory behind Holl’s execution of the design is that the new addition has smooth, clean-cut facades. The original classical design also has very smooth and clean-cut aspects to the exterior…it is not as rusticated as similar buildings of its genre.

    One very elegant gesture I like to the building is the gutter located at the intersection of the exterior wall and the grass. This creates a subtle separation between the building and the landscape. It almost provides an illusion that the structure is projecting out of a gap just big enough for it to pass through, rather than the structure just being laid atop the grass. This gap of no more than 3 inches enhances the sharpness to the overall design.

    I took more photos of the building than the artwork! I would love to drive back here again

  • powkey

    Best building in the Midwest.

    …. the best part is that the museum is free!

  • cola

    can i know how does the old building link to the 5 lenses?
    is it through underground?

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  • Prva Arhi Brigada

    The Nelson Atkins Museum > new elements exist in complementary contrast with the original 1933 classical “Temple to Art”

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