The changing shape of Middle America: New Moshe Safdie-designed buildings in Kansas City, Bentonville

I had quite a bit to say back in February 2006 about the Telfair Museums’ Jepson Center, including this riff on the architecture:

It may be a long time before we can clearly position Safdie’s building in the pantheon of Savannah architecture, but here’s my two cents worth.
Safdie’s buildings clearly “fit” their environments. They don’t, however, simply “blend.”

Some are complements to, even extensions of, the natural world. Look at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Israel, or the extraordinary design for the Crystal Bridges cultural center in Bentonville, Ark. (That would be Wal-Mart money, folks.)

Even in more rigid urban environments, Safdie often employs slanting or sloping exterior walls, routinely dominated by glass, to create excitement at the juncture of private and public spaces.

There are slanting walls on the Jepson too, but they’re inside.

From the first, Safdie’s exterior designs were controlled by the very nature of Savannah’s grids and traditional structures.

Initially, I disliked the large white additions to the north facade that seemed merely an exercise to meet an arbitrary requirement of the Historic Review Board.

But whatever one calls those big structures: “ruins,” “aitches” or “crosses,” they accomplish at least three things. They provide a visual buffer between inside and outside more in keeping with Savannah mores than pure glass did, they respect the line of the other buildings along York Street, and they add to the exterior visual cadence of the columns and mass of the Telfair Academy and Trinity Methodist.

I hate to say it, but that long design review process might have actually made the building better, even if the delays were intended by some to put a stop to the building altogether.

While the Jepson exterior is dominated by straight lines, the inside is all swoops and curves which permit dramatic shifts in light as the day progresses. Shadows produced by the slats along the rooftop windows work magic with the large reception areas and the grand staircase.

The sometimes curving walls in the elegantly shaped galleries do not hamper the hanging or the viewing of the art, with the possible exception of a couple of odd corners.

In his stated philosophy, Safdie says that architecture should embrace the “symbolic practices” of “ritual” and “ceremony.”

And perhaps it’s this emphasis on our emotional grasp of interior spaces that struck me the most when I recently toured the Jepson with the Telfair’s Jim Battin.

Opponents of the Jepson might have expected another cold, sterile postmodern building, but that’s not what the museum evokes, from inside or outside.

There are spaces in the Jepson – the massive lobby, the staircase landing above the lane, the view of Telfair Square from the second floor cafe – where the building simply produces wonder.

I went back and found that column after the recent news of two more major cultural buildings in the U.S. that have been designed by Moshe Safdie: the Wal-Mart wealth-funded Crystal Bridges in Arkansas and Kansas City’s Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

Take a look at this great Washington Post article: Crystal Bridges in Arkansas: A world-class museum from the land of Wal-Mart. As the piece notes, Crystal Bridges not only opens its doors in November with a signature new building and an impressive collection of American art, but also a great big endowment:

Endowed by the Walton Family Foundation with $800 million, Crystal Bridges instantly joins the ranks of the richest museums in this country, and it has been using its extraordinary resources to assemble a collection of American art that may rival in quality, if not quantity, anything available to museum visitors in New York, Washington, Los Angeles or Chicago. It has aggressively pursued some of the most prized and iconic pieces of American art to come on the market in the past five years, leading some observers to detect an impact on prices that they call the “Walton effect.”

The museum, designed by blue-chip institutional architect Moshe Safdie and nestled in a thickly forested basin near the main square of Bentonville, is Walton’s legacy project. Walton, 61, is the daughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, who died in 1992. She is also “media shy,” a major contributor to Republican political candidates, a horse lover and, in the rare interviews she has given over the years, unabashedly patriotic and sentimentally devoted to the rolling Arkansas landscape she grew up in. Married and divorced once, she lives on an immense ranch in Texas and has been known to bid on art by cellphone while riding one of her beloved horses.

The Washington Post’s Philip Kennicott gave the new building a mixed review:

The museum is a series of connected pavilions, two of which function as “bridges” over ponds built into the forest site. The distinctively shaped undulating pavilions remind some people of an armadillo, or a turtle shell. They are not remotely crystal — that part of the name is borrowed from the nearby Crystal Springs, which feeds a stream that once ran through the site. [. . .]

There is a substantial “wow” factor to the building, but no one would ever call it refined, or meticulous or perfectly wrought. Safdie’s design is often sloppy, with elements that feel provisional, afterthoughts or improvisations. Metal panels have been added to the building’s exterior to cover structural elements — enormous cable stays that hold up the pavilions — that would have been appealing if left exposed. For some reason, a circular courtyard at the entry level to the main museum is divided, without symmetry, by a mysterious joint. An ugly black fence prevents visitors from wandering from the forest onto one of building’s roofs.

But there are compensating elements. The building has been set into a bowl blasted out of a forested basin. Care was taken to nestle the building tightly into the space, without damaging the surrounding forest, which is held back by enormous retaining walls that were still partly visible during a visit in late September.

Kansas City's Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts

Kansas City’s new Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts features two new performance spaces — one of 1800 seats and one of 1600. The building is the new home for the Kansas City Ballet, the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, and the Kansas City Symphony. Like so much of Safdie’s work, the exterior does not have straight lines. Safdie’s work here in Savannah, of course, had to respect the basic components of the Oglethorpe plan. Downtown Savannah’s design guidelines mandated a basically rectilinear building — and mandated that the planned front expanse of glass be broken up with other elements. But even without those guidelines, it’s hard to imagine Safdie would not have respected the basic elements of the grid, both in terms of the building’s footprint and the relationships to nearby buildings.