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Bloch Building Expansion, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, USA

Issue 38 Aug/Sep 2007 Architectural : Museum


The Bloch Building expansion to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City by Steven Holl Architects provides a counterpoint to the original 1933 Beaux-Arts building. Five lenses of glass walls emerge from the ground and create a luminous, undulating interplay between architecture, landscape and art. Here Rebecca Malkin and Richard Renfro of Renfro Design Group give a personal account of their involvement in the lighting design.

We knew from the first design meeting at Steven Holl Architects in the summer of 2000, that the Bloch Building expansion to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art would be a special lighting project – and a challenging one. Steven Holl’s competition design was selected by the Museum for its unique approach of integrating the building into the landscape on the east side of the building. The five glass volumes (called “lenses”) were the complimentary contrast to the existing 1933 Nelson-Atkins Building made of stone. Holl’s design challenged the conventional ideology of museum as “temple of art”, in order to make the Nelson-Atkins more accessible to Kansas City. Our goals for the lighting design were to support those architectural concepts, provide lighting appropriate for the art and make the Bloch Building a source of pride for the city.
In Holl’s design, light is a fundamental element – a material – that shapes the interior and exterior spaces during the day and at night. With a building composed primarily of glass, one of our tasks was to work with the materials and forms to design a system that would balance the available daylight entering the galleries during the day to give form to the architecture, but still maintain an environment that was sensitive to the conservation needs of the art. The illumination of public spaces and art support areas needed to address the functional requirements of the Museum’s programme. The concept for the nighttime image of the building was to create glowing lanterns of the glass volumes (“lenses”) protruding from the landscape which would illuminate the exterior space and sculpture between the lenses.
The success of any of our projects hinges upon collaboration. Our office worked closely with SHA, the Museum and other members of the design team in exemplary fashion to challenge and rethink “the norm”. There was a constant distilling and refinement of the essential function of each idea and building component to ensure that the lighting clarified and enriched the architecture and the art viewer’s experience. This effort was most intensely exercised in our teamwork with SHA to develop the art lighting system for the galleries. The intent in terms of natural light was to allow one to experience its variation – whether it is the time of day, season or sky condition – rather than control it to the extent that one would have no sense of what was happening outside. To allow these variations in the intensity of daylight, daylight could not be the primary light source for the art and maintain the narrow range of light levels to meet the Museum’s conservation requirements. The electric lighting system would serve to light the art and balance the brightness of the art walls with the natural light at the ‘T-walls’. This provided a base level of accent light for each art piece while allowing the daylight to provide an acceptable level of variation to the overall light on the art.
We began by reviewing architectural models in order to better understand how the building form would manipulate the daylight entering the gallery spaces. Each suite of galleries (most of which are below grade) are centred on a double-walled glass lens, which serves to gather and admit daylight. The lens glass is supported by a “T-wall” which not only functions as a structural element, but reflects and filters the daylight into the gallery space below. We discovered that by carving sculpted openings in these walls, we could mix the cool light of the northern sky with the warm light of the southern exposures resulting in a more interesting and dynamic space in galleries that would otherwise have only seen one type of light.
A series of studies were required to evaluate the properties of the glass “sandwich” of the lenses in order to determine a “glass factor” that could be applied to subsequent computer calculations. The lenses are comprised of two layers of glass, separated by a one metre cavity. Interlocking low iron sandblasted and textured glass U-planks with Okalux insulating material form the outer layer, while the laminated, acid-etched inner glass contains a white PVB UV interlayer. Our process of evaluating these layers included:
- Transmission measurements for each component of the glass system;
- Physical mockups of gallery sections at 1” = 1’-0” and half full size;
- Many hours of computer calculations.
Further evaluation of the building form, for various times of year was accomplished via 3D computer model calculations, using Lightscape and Radiance software. We discovered that the geometry of the building reduced the high angle, more intense light of the summer sun, and that the spring and fall seasons had the potential of providing the “worst case” scenarios in terms of daylight within the galleries. Consequential computer calculations (some taking days to complete a single calculation) focused on these key times of year.
Shades located within the lens cavity provide a final level of control for the amount of light entering the galleries from the available light on the exterior. The optimal combination of shade fabric transmissions were determined to meet the light level requirements of the art and shade fabrics tested to verify their performance. The resulting shade program allows the Museum to change the configuration on a seasonal basis, providing a multi-tier passive daylighting system.
The electric art lighting system is an essential component for the galleries and was devised in a manner so as to be sympathetic to the folding, sloping planes of the ceiling and to provide adequate flexibility for changing artwork locations. Rather than use continuous track, which would be perceived as long slits in the ceiling, a series of short track sections or “stitches” were located based upon studies of each gallery in section. Track fixtures can be located and aimed as required to illuminate the art.
A second component of the electric lighting system were the architectural fluorescent coves in the ceiling located along selected art walls to provide balance to the daylight in each gallery. Multiple levels of switching the lamps in each cove allow the Museum staff to adjust the coves based upon the specific exhibit requirements.
Public spaces are illuminated with fixtures that are strategically integrated into the architecture. The lobby spaces are primarily illuminated by fluorescent coves for general light. In areas where focal light is required, such as the Museum Store, adjustable track fixtures are provided, incorporated into ceiling slots. A custom recessed ceiling fixture with a textured glass lens was designed to conceal adjustable downlights and accent lights for special events in the lobby. A high-output T5 fluorescent uplight within the fixture provides an ambient glow. Preset dimming systems allow for individual room control for special events and day to day functional lighting requirements.
As luminous as the building is during the day, it is equally magical at night. As the sun sets, the electric light within the Bloch Building lenses transforms the building into glowing lanterns. High-output T5 fluorescent fixtures located at grade and on horizontal structural catwalks within the lens cavities illuminate the inner glass layer. The reflected light, seen through the outer glass wall, provides a soft glow for the surrounding site and sculptures located between the lenses. The “lanterns” on the lawn have become an iconic image for the Nelson-Atkins and Kansas City.


Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Both buildings at night from the J.C. Nichols Plaza (north). High-output T5’s illuminate the inner glass layer to transform the building into a glowing lantern

  • Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

     The interior of the Bloch Building

  • Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

    The new Visitor Services Desk in Lens One of the Bloch Building - daylighting, as well as artificial light, is a vital element to the design

  • All the art is highlighted by track lighting in the contemporary galleries of the Bloch Building

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