Posted by: Nancy | August 22, 2010


Scene:  A humid afternoon, sun blasting the downtown construction site. Dust and noise from heavy machinery permeate the sticky heavy air;  a cement truck with its rotating body groans and beeps as it backs up an incline. A very masculine place looking like a battlefield, a sense of danger and purpose, a tension in the environment.

Suddenly all is transformed and the tension takes on a new dimension. I am inside the construction site of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Kansas City.

I admit to a constant fascination with the art of architecture and engineering — I’m stunned by the combination of mathematics and precision and emotion that is so evident in this structure.  Yes, emotion. You feel as thought the structure “knows” its purpose and embodies an appreciation of art and its impact on humanity.

Click on photo for a brief video

There is a tension in the structure — a struggle to balance, precisely, the engineering  requirements with the artistic goals. There is magnificence in the tension.

It’s both literal and figurative.

The physical structure relies on tension, with cables that flow from the curved shell to deep anchors. These cables support the glass atrium facade.

The imagery of the building is reminiscent of a musical instrument (a cello, in my mind). The tension wires are the strings, the arc of the structure is the sensuous body of the instrument, and its position on the landscape — the change to the horizon — is the music.

In this image, the participants who visit the building are part of the performance itself. We walk through the instrument and our movement resonates with the sense of breathing within the building. The building already feels alive with rhythmic tension.

You feel it inside the performance spaces where the beautiful woodwork is warming and comforting, where the chamber produces a cathedral-like sense of awe and grace. It’s a wonder at nature, like walking in a vast forest, but this time it’s the vast imagination, skill and mastery of the craftsmen that amazes.

The building soars and sings with echoes and self-reflections: it’s as though it folds in on itself, again creating a balance. The interior mimics the dramatic exterior, the lines of the exterior are reflected in the the parallel lines in the acoustically designed walls in the theater. The exterior curves are mimicked in the interior performance space.

Construction is change in action; transformation on a grand physical scale. Art, also, is change in action — a moment of tension, the creation of the artist conveyed through a performer to an audience. The impermanence of the moment juxtaposed with the searing meaning and perhaps, enduring memory in the minds of an audience.

This change, so welcome, so beautiful, so important to our culture. This building will play upon our identity and forever mark our commitment to our better instincts in innovation, art, engineering, craftsmanship.

It is a building of possibilities. It shows that there is unbound potential for us, as individuals and as a community.

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