June 17, 2011

Star Magazine | Reading our city, through architecture, from A to Z

In February 2009, Steve Paul, The Star’s senior writer and arts editor, set out to discover some of the things that make Kansas City what it is. The series, “Architecture A-Z,” sought to determine the role architecture played in creating the experience of Kansas City. Here is a recap.

Kansas City has grown from a rough riverside settlement to a sprawling metropolis in the blink of two centuries.

How we move about the city now, how we enjoy it as a place and admire what makes it distinctive are individual things. They depend on who we — or you — are. It depends on our individual histories, on the paths we’ve gone down in our personal and cultural lives. It depends on whether we actually take the time to read the city as we live, work and play in it.

Nearly two and a half years ago, I set out to discover some of the things that make Kansas City what it is. How did we get from there to here? If you pick through the visible bones of the city’s past, what would you find? And, most important for the purpose of this exercise — a magazine series we called “Architecture A-Z” — what role does architecture play in creating the experience of Kansas City?

“We all see more of architecture than of any other art,” the English journalist C.E. Montague once wrote. “Every street is a gallery of architects’ work.”

Yet I’d venture to say that architecture is far from the minds of most Kansas Citians. We don’t dwell on the notion that the space we live in was shaped by architects. We take architecture and design for granted. We rarely consider that choices have been made — choices based on money, laws, taste, time, materials and whimsy.

Every now and then, most often amid an atmosphere of controversy, architecture becomes a thing worthy of public discussion.

The recent spat over a proposed office building on the Country Club Plaza, for example, is all about architecture and its associated activities — urban design, city planning, public place making, commercial redevelopment. When is architecture good or bad? What of our past should be preserved or protected? How much power should developers wield? These are vital questions, prompted by the Plaza proposal, that ought to be asked more often.

The revival of Kansas City’s downtown in the last two decades is the story of architecture as an expression of corporate desire, civic pride and political infighting.

One of my favorite memorable architectural moments of recent years was the dustup created by former Mayor Kay Barnes as she was about to anoint Frank Gehry as the designer of a downtown arena. A consortium of local arena designers took offense at the intrusion and quickly put together a team that wrested the project from the clutches of the convention-exploding visionary.

As a result, of course, the locals helped to avoid the kind of eye-popping, crowd-attracting and budget-challenging marvel Gehry has notably planted elsewhere. Instead of the kind of physiological stir Gehry typically delivers, we got, in the Sprint Center, an inoffensive glass bowl that works reasonably well but sits a bit heavy on the streetscape. It’s classic, conservative, soft-spoken Kansas City.

T he idea of architecture as aesthetic invention and unique experience came to the fore a dozen years ago when trustees of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art chose designer Steven Holl’s plan to expand the museum with a glass-topped, underground palace of light. It was radical. And invigorating.

The resulting public discussions, debates and ultimate general acceptance of the Nelson’s Bloch Building speak to the ability of architecture to stir our passions viscerally. If cultural structures built by star architects are the cathedrals of our day, then the soaring asymmetry of Holl’s Bloch Building provides some of the most awe-inspiring spatial experiences we have in this city.

Architecture’s role as inducer of heart-pumping exuberance returns on the local landscape this year with the impending opening of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, the bulbous, hilltop complex designed by architect Moshe Safdie.

The fact that Safdie, an international practitioner known for grand institutional gestures, created the design for one of our more disastrous recent building ventures is another one of those choice architectural moments, still unresolved, that’s guaranteed to be talked about for years. I’m speaking, of course, about the West Edge office and hotel complex off the Plaza, still standing naked and vacant like some concrete-skinned ruin as its fate awaits the actions of litigious bean counters and deal makers.

A ll of this heavy cogitation on the meaning of architecture in our town might come as a surprise to those who have regarded our long-running magazine project as a light-hearted diversion from the brain-cramping problems that assault us daily from all directions.

But “Architecture A-Z,” which has captured many snapshot views of Kansas City’s past and present, also tried to touch on some of the major design issues of our time. I think it also proved to be a way of acknowledging that there is always, and everywhere, more than meets the eye. That is one of its stronger messages, I hope: You can learn a lot if you slow down and look.

The idea was relatively simple: March through the alphabet and look high and low for appropriate subjects and pictures to illuminate what makes this middle-coast place work. My aim was to make it fun, informative, interesting and, whenever possible, surprising.

The feature must have struck a chord. Many readers wrote and called to comment, to suggest ideas and to add to (or, alas, correct) the details. The word on the street was encouraging and gratifying. There seemed enough of a following to sustain a second run through the alphabet. And the discoveries kept emerging, sometimes at lightning speed as tight deadlines approached.

Asa Beebe Cross. Edgar Faris. John W. McKecknie. Joseph Radotinsky. Their names are rarely spoken today, but each of these architects of the past helped give our metro area character and life. It was enlightening to trip across their names repeatedly and satisfying to highlight their contributions.

Selby Kurfiss? Who could’ve predicted that a distinctive arts and crafts house in Brookside came from a designer — Kurfiss — who also is credited with a rather plain brick commercial building that we now know and love as Arthur Bryant’s?

Kansas City, like any other metropolis, can be a place of wonder.

Tom Nelson, the ‘N’ in BNIM and one of the deans of Kansas City architecture today, remembers his first encounters with the city on boyhood drives from the family home in St. Joseph.

“I was a little kid during the war,” he told me a while back, “the war” being World War II. “The most exciting thing in my life at that time was coming to Kansas City, which you didn’t do very often, because gas was rationed. You came down to meet someone at Union Station, an aunt or an uncle.

“I remember this very vivid image I had. You’d come down 71 Highway through Platte Woods or down 169 through Gladstone, which we did more of, and you came out at Oak Street. And you were looking right at downtown Kansas City, and particularly City Hall and the courthouse. And that image that stuck with me: this limestone — I didn’t know the term ‘art deco’ then — this limestone city in that vernacular, whatever it was. I didn’t know that word either — ‘vernacular.’ But it was a very strong image.

“There was 911 Walnut and Kansas City Power Light, and that’s what the city was. I think it was kind of unusual. I don’t think a lot of other cities had that kind of cohesion. A lot of that is left; those buildings are intact, and they’re powerful enough that that feeling still exists.”

Yes, we are the Limestone City. Kind of like the Emerald City, though paler. And like encountering that place from a teasing distance as the Yellow Brick Road unfurls, I think it’s inspiring to spy the grand sweep of the city’s skyline from miles away, as you can from high points in almost any direction. With some of the newer glass towers downtown, it even has a shade of emerald.

I n addition to the long view of the central core, it’s equally fun and eminently absorbing to look closely at the details, to consider the city stone by stone, as the 19th century critic John Ruskin once suggested. So “Architecture A-Z” also presented an opportunity to celebrate distinctive ornaments, public sculptures, building parts and other microscopic features, without which we’d be just another generic, featureless nowhere. From Spanish-tinged filigree on the Plaza to corporate lions and eagles to boldly patterned, brick towers at Wyandotte High School — every detail tells a story.

Dan Maginn, another native of St. Joseph, represents the generation of architects following in the footsteps of Nelson. A principal in the firm of El Dorado Inc., Maginn is most excited by pieces of Kansas City that feel most authentic — original, organic expressions of urban living rather than Disneyfied recreations of a place long past.

Authenticity, Maginn says, requires a high quality human experience.

“Something needs to be good — it can be food or music or a dramatic view — any number of things that make one happy to be alive or aware of being alive on the planet.”

Maginn’s firm is headquartered west of Broadway and Union Station and hard by the railroad tracks that are among the busiest in the nation. He and his partners have gotten used to the rumble.

“That’s authentic,” he says, “and it hasn’t been branded.”

Maginn recalls the days in the late 1990s when an old warehouse behind Union Station was a scary shell of a place and Dan Clothier, a developer with roots in Wichita, began talking about transforming it into a restaurant.

“Everyone was telling him he was crazy,” Maginn says.

Not only did Clothier open one restaurant, the former City Tavern, but he attracted two more prominent and highly successful ones — Jack Stack Barbecue and Lidia’s Kansas City — to become tenants in what’s known as the Freight House.

“That’s a testament to someone not trying to recreate something,” Maginn says “It’s a vision of something not done before. A no-brainer. It’s a unique experience, and few people saw that except for him.”

The vibrancy of a city depends on how open it is to the work and influence of visionaries. The men who laid out our system of parks and boulevards — including the founding publisher of this newspaper, who fostered the movement in print — certainly qualify. J.C. Nichols, who planned the Plaza and any number of long-lasting institutions nearby, is widely revered for what he contributed to the city’s idea of itself.

And let’s not forget the artists and place-makers who have been in the vanguard of the city’s cultural ascendancy of the last 20 years.

The city’s architectural future seems to be in good hands as well.

I’ve gotten close-up views recently as architecture students at the University of Kansas and Kansas State University have tackled projects meant to inject life into forgotten or underused sections of the central city.

The KU studio, under the guidance of Josh Shelton, one of Maginn’s colleagues at El Dorado, spent a semester considering what to do with an Interstate 35 corridor near downtown — the land beneath the highway overpass that divides the Crossroads and West Side neighborhoods between 17th Street and Southwest Boulevard. Can it be reclaimed for housing or a water park and wetlands? All it would take to adopt one or more of those ambitious plans is civic vision and money.

The K-State students, led by Vladimir Krstic at the Kansas City Design Center, made a deep analysis of the West Bottoms and have proposed a series of fundamental and highly rational interventions — from riverfront soccer fields to a new transit hub — that would help bring that 19th century industrial district into the 21st century.

Another student venture, the Studio 804 project, an offshoot of KU’s architecture department under the direction of architect Dan Rockhill, has brought cutting-edge and environmentally sensitive technologies to a series of outstanding modernist houses in Kansas City, Kan.

And UMKC’s Department of Architecture, Urban Planning and Design, now housed in an architecturally significant, 1960s-era building on campus, has grown into a reliable and creative source of deep thinking about city planning here and elsewhere.

In other words, Kansas City’s architectural community, which has seen great accomplishment and wrenching economic challenges of late, is well prepared to shape the space we live in from here on out — all the way from A to Z, that is. All that the rest of us need do as we read the city our builders make is stop, listen and look.


“Architecture A-Z” ran periodically from Feb. 8, 2009, to June 5, 2011. A book is planned for publication in the fall.

About the photographs
When it launched, “Architecture A-Z,” clearly was intended to be a visual feature. It quickly turned into a photographic journey, and my deadline planning for each entry often was driven by the photographs I could take in my travels around town. As an amateur photographer, I wasn’t interested in, or equipped for, setting up architectural beauty shots. Nor did I want to offend the sensibilities of photographic professionals. But mostly I ended up shooting pictures with available light (and shadows). I am cognizant of the warning that architect Tom Nelson uttered in conversation one day that taking pictures often gets in the way of seeing. But I am hopeful that it’s possible to do both. And hopeful, too, that, freed of the limited space of a one-page, multi-picture feature, some of the photographs stand on their own as worthy glimpses of the city’s architectural life.

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