The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art Story by Steven Holl Architects The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
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The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Steven Holl Architects as Architects

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.

BNIM + Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

BNIM as Architects

Bloch Building

BNIM was selected to serve as Architect of Record with Design Architect Steven Holl of New York City on a major expansion to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. As Architect of Record, BNIM was responsible for all aspects of design support, project management and construction administration. The expansion comprises the first major addition to the Beaux-Arts style structure since it opened in 1933. The new addition provides 150,000 sf of new galleries and public facilities including an entry lobby, art library, cafe and sculpture court devoted to the works of Isamu Noguchi. Holl’s design features five striking glass “lenses” rising from the rolling terrain on the east side of the Museum. These lenses house new gallery space under specially contoured ceilings that respond to the undulating landscape outside. The lenses diffuse natural light into the art galleries below, and at night the galleries softly glow from within. Moving through the addition, visitors experience a flow between light, art, architecture and landscape, with views from one level to another, from inside to outside.

Entry Plaza and Parking Structure

The new main entry plaza for the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art features a reflecting pool with an installation entitled “One Sun/34 Moons” by Walter De Maria. A 30-by-40 foot bronze and steel slab coated with gold leaf slab rises above the 160-by-140 foot reflecting pool containing 34 glass “oculi” designed by Steven Holl to allow light to enter the two-level below-grade parking garage. The parking garage accommodates 450 cars and features a specially formed “wave tees” ceiling of pre-cast and rest and place concrete. The structure provides connections to the surrounding sculpture garden and addition space to the existing museum, including an underground entry to the plaza courtyard. This project was designed in collaboration with Steven Holl Architects.

Bloch Impressionist Galleries

The Bloch Impressionist Galleries is one of several renovation projects completed by BNIM at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, beginning in 2000. Like those preceding it, this renovation involves significant alterations to architectural finishes throughout the spaces and large-scale upgrades to the mechanical, electrical, and life-safety systems within the confines of the galleries. The galleries occupy approximately 10,000 sf located on the plaza level and encompasses the entire northeast quadrant of the building. The mechanical unit and associate ductwork serving these areas will be replaced, incorporating crucial life-safety and environmental sensors to protect both visitors and the precious artwork. Once complete, the Bloch Impressionist Galleries will showcase the internationally celebrated Marion and Henry Bloch Collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Art, which was amassed over a 20-year period.

Egyptian Galleries | Susan B. and Mark A. Susz Galleries

The Egyptian Gallery, part of the Susan B. and Mark A. Susz Galleries at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, provides a permanent home for the exquisite funerary objects of the Ancient Egyptian noblewoman Meretites. The gilt sarcophagus of Meretites stands upright drawing visitors into a gallery space that is calm, reflective and reverent to the nature of the collection. In addition to a complete renovation of architectural finishes, lighting and new casework, the scope of work also included comprehensive life safety and mechanical system upgrades. The exterior walls of the Nelson-Atkins Building, which define the galleries, were bolstered with new insulation and a moisture barrier, helping to preserve the collection and improve the performance of the Museum’s operations. The design of new Egyptian Gallery features clean, modern details, which place emphasis on the collection itself. The walls are finished in a dark colored Venetian plaster; an antique bronze detail articulates the extents of the plaster wall, framing both stone trim and glass casework.

American Indian Gallery

The American Indian Art Galleries bring to fruition the Museum’s long-standing efforts to illuminate the importance of Native artistic traditions, and the significant role these traditions have played in the development of our nation’s cultural identity. The collection is arranged by origin according to seven geographic areas: Woodlands, Plains, Southwest, Plateau, California and the adjacent Great Basin, Northwest and Arctic. The design of the American Indian Art Galleries represents a departure from the neo-classical details of the original Nelson-Atkins Building; the new galleries are devoid of ornament, replaced by clean, modern details, which place emphasis on the collection itself. While the color palette is restrained, the materials specified throughout the space exude richness and depth. Similar to work completed on the Egyptian Gallery, BNIM’s scope of work included life safety and mechanical system upgrades, plus new insulation and a moisture barrier for the exterior walls of the Nelson-Atkins Museum.

American Art Gallery | Sarah and Landon Rowland Galleries

The creation of the Sarah and Landon Rowland American Art Galleries at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art serves as a testament to the renewed value of American Art and demonstrates the importance these works have in the preservation and promotion of our collective history. The galleries feature work from a unique period in American Art history and are arranged in chronological order. They culminate in the collection’s grand exhibit space, Rowland Hall. Designed in the Adam Style, Rowland Hall features ornate molding and an elaborate vaulted plaster ceiling illuminated by two-glass oculi. On the opposite end of the linear sequence of galleries is the Rotunda, an existing “nodal” gallery of its own significance. The Drawing and Print Corridor and Antechamber, which connect Rowland Hall to the original Rotunda, have also been completely renovated. New painting galleries have been created and feature modernized laylite glass ceilings, in response to the original glass ceiling installation found in typical galleries throughout the Museum.

Ford Learning Center + Signage

BNIM designed the Ford Learning Center as part of the overall renovation of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. It serves as the center of all the Museum’s education and outreach programs. The space, which triples the existing area devoted to educational programs, includes an Educator Resource Center; an Orientation/Training classroom offering state-of-the-art technology and training resources; a gallery wall exhibiting art by children and adults who participate in the center’s programs; classrooms; and support office spaces. Large-scale super graphics, visible from the Museum’s main circulation spine, alert visitors to the presence of the Center and invite them inside. Once inside, the design is youthful, yet sophisticated. A neutral palette allows the artwork to take center stage. Color is accented at each of the seven classrooms where the signage and entrance design have been developed to provide a cheerful wayfinding system appealing to both children and adults.

Administrative Office Renovations

The lower level of the original Nelson-Atkins Building was renovated to provide administrative office space for the Museum’s curatorial, human resources, and finance departments. The renovation fulfills a significant part of the Museum’s Long-Term Master Plan to vacate leased office space and locate all employees on the Museum campus. The program included private and open offices, conference space, workrooms, and break areas. The renovation involved significant alterations to architectural finishes, as well as the removal of existing combustible materials and large-scale upgrades to the mechanical, electrical and life safety systems. BNIM’s design for the new office space left the existing structural system and infrastructure exposed intermittently, and contrasted with highly finished areas of rich materials and bold accent colors. Due to the subterranean nature of the space, the quality of artificial lighting was paramount. The accent colors and rich materials were enhanced by the interplay of artificial light sources to provide a colorful mix of ambient lighting within the otherwise neutral space.

Kirkwood Hall

In conjunction with the creation of the Adelaide Cobb Ward Sculpture Hall, BNIM was commissioned to design and oversee the renovations to Kirkwood Hall, the ceremonial heart of the original Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. This project includes, but is not limited to, renovations of Kirkwood Hall, the North and South Entrance Halls, and the Entry Vestibules. These renovations included the following: the restoration of decorative plaster coves throughout Kirkwood Hall; the construction of new plaster beams throughout Kirkwood Hall (integrating life safety systems and light track locations for art and event lighting); the decorative painting of these new plaster beams to match the original ceiling design; the restoration of all existing historical light fixtures; the installation of new lighting fixtures designed to illuminate the coves of Kirkwood Hall; and the specification of new glazing for Kirkwood Hall’s saw-tooth skylights, as well as the laylite ceiling.

Adelaide Cobb Ward Sculpture Hall

The creation of the Adelaide Cobb Ward Sculpture Hall involved renovating the existing Atkins Stair Hall and central gallery to provide a seamless physical and visual connection to the new Bloch Building Addition to the east, a contextual link to Kirkwood Hall and Atkins Stair Hall on either side, while also acting as a “hub” gallery within the surrounding European Paintings galleries. The completed project now provides an uninterrupted circulation and display space from the grand central volume of Kirkwood Hall on through to the Bloch building, linking past and present.

Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

GLASFABRIK LAMBERTS as Profiled glass LINIT EcoGlass
Architect: Steven Holl Architects, USA - New York
Product: LINIT®EcoGlass P 40/60/7, low iron, solar, TSH (toughened, sandblasted, heat-soak-test)
  • AIA: New York Chapter Project Award (1999)
  • AIA: Central States Architecture Award (2007)
  • AIA: New York Chapter Project Architecture Honor Award (2008)
  • AIA: Institute Honor Award for Architecture (2008)
  • LEAF Awards: New Built Award (2007)
  • Capstone Architectural Design Award (2008)
  • Progressive Architecture Award (2000)
Photos: Roland Halbe, Andy Ryan, Timothy Hursley

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art as Client

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art arose from the instincts and ambitions of two private individuals who shared the dream of providing a public art museum for Kansas City and the surrounding region. William Rockhill Nelson, founder of The Kansas City Star, was convinced that for a city to be truly civilized, art and culture were necessities. When he died in 1915, the bulk of his estate was used to establish the William Rockhill Nelson Trust, the income from which was to be used for “the purchase of works of fine arts such as paintings, engravings, sculptures, tapestries, and rare books…which will contribute to the delectation and enjoyment of the public generally.” Kansas City school teacher Mary McAfee Atkins had similar aspirations for her city. Although relatively unknown, she provided the city with approximately one-third of her million-dollar estate “for the purchase of necessary ground in Kansas City, Missouri, and the creation of a building to be maintained and used as a Museum of Fine Arts for the use and benefit of the public.” The Nelson estate was combined with Mary Atkins’ legacy to build a 232,000-square-foot art museum for the people of Kansas City. The William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art and the Mary Atkins Museum of Fine Arts opened to the public on Dec. 11, 1933. Unlike most major museums, the Nelson-Atkins holdings were not developed from existing collections of art. With passionate leadership and the assets of the Nelson Trust, however, the Museum was able to quickly build a strong and expansive collection that has continued to grow ever since. The Museum’s early hiring of Chinese art expert Laurence Sickman, first as curator and later as Director, led to the flourishing of a vibrant Asian art collection. The gifted connoisseurship of the collection has been widely recognized. The Chinese galleries, once noted as “one of the finest single curatorial achievements in museum history,” along with holdings from Japan, India, Iran, Indonesia, Korea, and Southeast and South Asia, comprise one of the most important collections of its kind in the United States to date. In the early 1980s, the Museum set about building its collection of modern sculpture. In 1986, the Hall Family Foundation, led by Foundation Chairman and Museum Trustee Donald J. Hall, purchased 50 works by Henry Moore which were loaned and later gifted to the Nelson-Atkins. That collection became the foundation for the Kansas City Sculpture Park, which opened in 1989, and was re-named The Donald J. Hall Sculpture Park in 2013. The 22-acre park is now home to masterpieces and monumental sculptures from an array of modern and contemporary artists, including Shuttlecocks (1994) by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, which have become Kansas City icons, Roxy Paine’s Ferment (2010), and Robert Morris’s Glass Labyrinth (2014). In April 2001, excavation began on the first expansion in the museum’s history. The Bloch Building, named in honor of Henry W. Bloch, Chairman of the Nelson-Atkins’ Board of Trustees, and his wife, Marion, opened in June of 2007. Designed by acclaimed architect Steven Holl, the Bloch Building celebrates the vision of the new Nelson-Atkins and supports its aim to enhance every facet of its programming in the new millennium. The addition expanded the Museum by 71 percent, from its present 234,000 square feet to some 394,000 square feet. It provided more than 160,000 square feet of new galleries, offices, and other facilities, including a tranquil court dedicated to the sculptures of Isamu Noguchi. In 2015, the museum announced an $11.7 million renovation that will showcase the internationally celebrated Marion and Henry Bloch collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. The collection was bequeathed to the museum in 2010 under the leadership of Director Emeritus Marc F. Wilson. Julián Zugazagoitia began his tenure in September of 2010 as the fifth Director & CEO of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. An international scholar, museum director and consultant, he served previously as the Director/CEO of El Museo del Barrio in New York.

Museum Collections Recognized internationally as one of the finest general art museums in the United States, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art now houses a collection of more than 35,000 works of art, from antiquity to the present. The encyclopedic collection represents a pinnacle of artistic achievement and serves as evidence of humankind’s history, religions, philosophies, aspirations, and daily lives. Preeminent among these are the Asian art collections, particularly in the area of Chinese art, in which the Museum’s holdings are among the most important in the world. The Nelson-Atkins also has an especially strong collection of European paintings and of 20th-century sculpture, which includes the largest group of monumental bronzes in the United States by Henry Moore. In 2006, the Museum also acquired one of the most important private collections of American photography, the Hallmark Photographic Collection. Newly installed American galleries and new American Indian galleries were unveiled in 2009, and newly renovated Ancient galleries opened in 2010.

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