Nelson’s Sun Pavilion plays with power

You can look at the temporary Sun Pavilion at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in multiple ways.

It is meant to complement an indoor exhibit that spans long stretches of time and culture. It’s an architectural gesture that attempts to solve a problem, investigate new technology and serve the desires of a client. It’s a curiosity on the streetscape, surely causing some head-scratching and smiles as drivers speed past on Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard.

The pavilion was born out of the museum’s planning for “Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World’s Fairs, 1851-1939.” The idea was to emulate a tradition of world’s fairs, where countries showed off their cultural savvy and creative talent, often in structures built strictly for the brief life spans of those expositions.

If world’s fairs also represented the cutting-edge of modernity, the Nelson’s reasoning went, then its pavilion project also ought to address new thinking about art, culture and technology.

The museum held a design competition and ultimately chose the Sun Pavilion, a proposal submitted by a small Kansas City architectural firm, Generator Studio, which led a group of technical and creative collaborators. The initial budget was low (about $20,000 from the museum), but ambitions were high, and about $350,000 in in-kind donations and components on loan helped achieve the vision, Generator architect Tom Proebstle said.

What Proebstle, co-designer Tm Gratkowski and the rest of their team created might represent a pale echo of Electric Park, the historic amusement center and celebration of incandescent lights that a century ago stood not many blocks east of the Nelson.

But as a summer-long activity in a small patch of visible green space, the Sun Pavilion evokes the feeling of a micro theme park as well as a grown-up, 21st-century version of capturing lightning bugs in a jar.

The pavilion comprises three half-size metal shipping containers, each programmed for interaction and to stimulate reflection on the larger exhibit’s themes of invention, new technology, creativity and cultural materials. Canopies made of solar panels rise around and above them, part of a lattice-work of industrial piping and tensioned cables.

Aesthetically the whole arrangement appears as if one of the containers stuck its finger, cartoonlike, into a 220-volt outlet.

As Proebstle described it, the team had to deal with the “intimidating landscape” presented by the original Nelson and Steven Holl’s Bloch Building and chose to make a contrasting sculptural statement that exploded cubes into fragments.

There’s a kind of democratic honesty about it all. The structure is almost fully exposed. Transparency predominates, elevating the raw and simple materials to a utilitarian elegance. Inside the Bloch Building’s “World’s Fairs” galleries, exquisite craft and sleek and sumptuous metalwork, glassware and wood define some of the heights of object design. Here, in 21st-century America, the message seems to be: Let’s get down to work.

With its suite of 154 solar panels, the pavilion generates enough energy to power itself, including the cooling system in the enclosed center container.

The middle container room also offers a demonstration device, a crank with which visitors can measure their own physical ability to generate electric power.

The two outer containers invite varying levels of interaction.

One is lined with chalkboard and asks schoolchildren to imagine the future, though their responses, viewed on a recent morning, amount mostly to juvenile scrawls.

The other holds an art project and asks the rather self-sustaining question, “How can innovative materials create new environments?”

On one of its walls, a found-material sculpture is growing, an orchestrated accretion of broken furniture parts and other scraps of wood. “Architects, designers and artists push boundaries,” goes a wall text, “looking for ways to use new and existing materials. Their innovations help us to look at the world in new ways.” As a community art project, visitors are asked to donate household goods that might end up being incorporated into the so called “wall of re(f)use.”

Completing the pavilion package is a covered seating area and three or four outlying structures — they seem like they could be picnic shelters, with mulched floors, but they operate only as sculptures.

As an intellectual exercise, it’s hard to see how the Sun Pavilion really blazes new, green-tilting trails. Solar power has been with us for decades, and recycling and reuse are hardly eye-opening, provocative projects. Then again, few museum visitors are likely to have had the chance to experience up close such an emphatic display of solar receptacles.

If they’re like most people of our day, however, many visitors will want to know whether they can solar-charge their phones while they sit on the wooden bench and contemplate the future. (Sorry, no, but there are outlets inside the containers so charge away.)

Super-charging curiosity and celebrating the art and technology of design are virtues worthy of praise.

As a pavilion project in a public park space, Generator Studio’s Sun Pavilion certainly seems more coherent and practically inspired than the fabric-covered pod that architect Zaha Hadid produced a few years ago (late and at great expense) for Millennium Park in Chicago.

If it’s the first of a series for the Nelson — and public opinion might play a role in whether the museum makes pavilion-commissioning a habit — then it’s something to learn from and applaud.