Weekending: Kauffman Arts Center adds to cultural options in the Heartland
What do Kansas City, Mo., and Bentonville, Ark., have in
- Both are making major contributions to the arts of the Heartland.
- Both have strong, visionary women making major contributions to the arts of the Heartland.
- Both boast new works by the same major-league architect.
- Both are an easy drive from St. Louis.
- All of the above.
All of the above, of course.
The recent architectural additions are two major achievements of one of this countryʼs greatest architects, Moshe Safdie. At 73, heʼs designed too many award-winning buildings to mention here, has been the director of the urban design program at Harvard Universityʼs Graduate School of Design and is now based in Boston with branch ofﬁces in Toronto, Jerusalem and Singapore.
To see his work for yourself, head west to the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, which opened last September in Kansas City, or head southwesterly to Bentonville, Ark., to see Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which opened two months later in November.
Or, do what we did, and make a triangle, an easy four-to-ﬁve-day driving trip. Today's story will focus on the Kansas City leg. Check back Friday for Crystal Bridges.
The weekend began with two concerts at the Kauffman Center. This amazing new building, which changes the Kansas City skyline, is the result of the vision of Muriel McBrien Kauffman, whose daughter, Julia Irene Kauffman, made it happen.
We allowed two nights for this leg of the trip to experience performances in both of the very different concert halls, which arenʼt exactly under one roof but share a vast, glass-enclosed foyer that functions a bit like a busy piazza. The center sits in a commanding position on a hillside overlooking Kansas Cityʼs Crossroads Arts District, on 16th Street between Broadway and Wyandotte Street.
The roofs of the stages are what a visitor coming from the interstate or downtown would probably see ﬁrst: powerful, cascading arches, a dramatic, stepped arrangement of vertical curves, which at their peak anchor the concave, suspended roof of the foyer. Think of the rib cage of a giant dinosaur, or maybe the Guggenheim turned on its side or maybe one of those collapsible cups we used to take camping. Those are the roofs of the concert halls, concrete on the vertical faces and reﬂective stainless steel on the curved surfaces.
Youʼre actually looking at the back side, but a neglected back door it is not.
In his writing about the Kauffman, Safdie said he wanted to create a building that had no front or back and was inviting from all directions. There is an entrance here, slightly hidden between the two theaters. People who arrive from this side do so by way of a cavern-like walkway that leads directly into the open south-facing foyer. Adding to the feeling of spaciousness at night is the glass roof, reﬂecting the action inside from above.
On the south, foyer side, a series of masts and cables is anchored deep in the bedrock below, supporting the glass roof and the outward-leaning glass wall and creating a canopy over a drop-off roadway. From the parking garage below, concert-goers will get to the foyer via a grand staircase.
Two halls for two types of performance
Inside, the two halls could not be more different, and they are designed for different purposes. The sound is the thing in Helzberg Hall, the slightly smaller theater that is the new home of the Kansas City Symphony. The same acoustics team responsible for Frank Gehryʼs Disney Hall in Los Angeles practiced their wizardry here. They covered the interior in thin slats of wood, chosen for their acoustic properties: Douglas ﬁr in the hall, Alaskan yellow cedar around the stage. Inspired partly by Hans Scharounʼs ground-breaking design for the Berliner Philharmonie, Safdie placed seating all around the stage, which is used for the audience or for the Kansas City Symphony Chorus.
The hall is surprisingly intimate, given that it seats 1,600. But the stage juts almost one-third of the way into the hall and the seats farthest from the stage are a little more than 100 feet away, according to the centerʼs promotional booklet. Perhaps the most dramatic feature is a custom designed pipe organ, its 5,548 pipes beautifully tucked into the arches behind the stage.
In contrast to the warmth and intimacy of the Helzberg, the larger Muriel Kauffman Theater is an explosion of color and light. The balcony facades are completely aglow, creating three stepped bands of light on the undulating walls. The cast resin balustrades look to be covering crumpled tinfoil but that's crumpled Mylar with LED lights that glow through the resin.
Safdie writes that he was inspired by the gilded balconies of 18th- and 19th-century theaters and wanted to re-interpret them in a contemporary vernacular. Adding to the visual excitement are colorful murals designed by students at the Kansas City Art Institute who worked with the architect in installing them.
This larger theater seats 1,800 and is the performing home of the Kansas City Ballet, the Lyric Opera of Kansas City and will be used for Broadway productions, although the prosceniumʼs ﬂexible opening allows for productions of very different scale. Along with the 5,000-square-foot stage, the orchestra pit will accommodate 90 musicians.
When the theater is viewed with audiences seated, you see a colorful crimson sea. Viewed on tour, the random medley of red, orange and maroon seat covers add to the richness of the space and complement the jewel tones of the murals.
Every seat was ﬁlled for the ballet we saw, a beautiful interpretation of “Romeo and Juliet” (score by Prokoﬁev), by the exceptional Kansas City Ballet. The soaring sets were a great demonstration of the backstage capabilities of the theater that can handle sets as tall as 30 feet.
Outside the theaters on the foyer side are more banks of stacked balconies, rings of white plaster, again invoking comparison to the interior of New Yorkʼs Guggenheim. On one side, the red carpeted balconies reﬂect a charming rosy glow on the ceiling above. We climbed the stairs to determine if that rose color were indeed coming from the ﬂoor below. We were right.
We were also right to allow at least an hour before each eveningʼs performance to experience the complex and another hour of daytime to see its dramatic silhouette against a bright blue late-winter sky. Itʼs too much to absorb in a quick visit. Allow time to crane your neck and wave at yourself in the reﬂecting ceiling overhead, then marvel at how uncrowded it feels sharing this magical space with hundreds of others, many of whom are also marveling at their surroundings.
Tours are available, but they ﬁll up early and times vary according to the performing schedules. To get the up-to-date schedule, go to the website: Kauffmancenter.org.