Creating the Perfect Instrument

By their nature and impact on public life, cultural projects evoke, when completed, a wave of critical evaluation. When praise comes it rarely credits all of the many players responsible.  Architecture is the outcome of a complex process, with many decision makers playing a role along the way.  As the great American architect Louis Sullivan said, “Great buildings occur with great clients.” In the 21st century, one would expand this to say, “Buildings are the product of the collaboration of many individuals from multiple disciplines.”

From the architect’s perspective, one would begin with one’s ambitions, being entrusted with the responsibility of designing a center of performing arts. Certainly, one would aspire to design “the perfect instrument”. Performing arts centers are as good as their acoustics, as good as their sight lines, as effective as the paraphernalia of theater equipment and facilities that enable the creative performing of the art. But designing the perfect instrument is not enough. Partaking in the cultural life of the city is a ritual; it is an experience, one in which architecture plays a major role. You might say that if within the auditorium an opera is performed within a set on the stage, then the building itself is a set for playing out the ritual of public life in the city. That’s always been true in the past, but is even more so today, when there are options for seeing and listening to the performing arts in comfortable settings by new electronic means in the comfort of your home.

Finally, for a performing arts center to be successful it must become a significant landmark in its city. Unlike other more utilitarian structures, the performing arts have traditionally been the jewels in the crown of the urban landscape. Consider Garnier’s opera house in Paris, or Utzon in Sydney or the Concertgebouw or Musikvereinssaal: in Amsterdam and Vienna respectively, each a landmark in their own cities, with which the cities are identified and vice versa.

The architect’s ambitions are not solely in his or her control; the ability to meet the objectives outlined above can only be achieved by the fulfillment of several preconditions, independent of the architect’s will.

Let me therefore, attempt to highlight some of those critical moments in the life of the development of the Kauffman Center. We must first go back to 1995 year when Muriel Kauffman created a foundation and willed her daughter Julia to invest in the creation of a performing arts center for Kansas City. Julia accepted her mother’s legacy with passion.

A second moment of great significance occurred when Ross Perot, owning a magnificent site on the escarpment on the edge of downtown Kansas City, overlooking to the South towards the Crown Center, put up the land for sale. An opportunity was recognized and the Kauffman Foundation purchased the site with the purpose of building the performing arts center. The site had everything going for it: proximity to downtown and the convention center; excellent access from the abutting expressways; generosity of size; magnificent views both towards the downtown and Southbound towards the Crown Center and the escarpment of the city beyond. As will unfold, it was the choice of site made available to the Kauffman Center that would have profound impact on the character of its architecture and its presence in the city.

Time came to choose an architect; of course this is difficult subject to discuss without sounding self-serving, but rather than establish a design competition, the more common way of selecting architects for cultural institutions, Julia Kauffman and her Board chose to review the work and the performance of a variety of architects and make a choice based on their intuition and the track record of the one to be entrusted with the building. For better, and sometimes for worse, the choice of architect is one of those critical moments in the life of a project.

Before the architect was on board, another major decision had been made: Working with Theater Projects as programming consultant, it was decided to build at least two, possibly three theaters, dedicated in their use to particular programs.

  • A concert hall
  • A proscenium theater for ballet, opera and theater and
  • (yet to come), a small community theater.

This decision cannot be treated lightly. Most communities choose to follow a more expeditious path, and for cost savings, build a single multi-purpose hall serving both concert performance as well as proscenium performances.  The National Arts Center in Ottawa, Canada; The Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida; and the Overture Center for the Arts in Madison, Wisconsin all chose to take this path. While they perform adequately, there is consensus that when a single hall is designed for several venues some compromise must be accepted. Certainly, the presence of a stage tower and proscenium compromises the quality of sound as well as the visual experience of concert goers, and the ideal sight lines for a concert certainly differ from that of a theater of a stage performance.

Once the architect proceeds with design, one can single out several moments of decision making as critical to the end result. The first is seizing on the particular opportunities presented by the site, or as I like to refer to it as “deciphering the secrets of the site.” In this case it meant recognizing that it is dramatically seen from the South, but also that the South affords the most dramatic view of the entire region. Thus the building was placed with its lobbies away from the downtown, facing the escarpment. A private driveway, crossing the site was created serving as ceremonial drop-off and access to parking. 

Closely tied in to the siting was the decision to have a singular lobby serving both halls, thus creating a synergy and intensity of the public experience going to the performances.

A third decision was to create a very transparent and extrovert lobby structure, which would visually broadcast the activities within the building towards the city, be seen, and look out to the city at the same time.

As design work on the concert hall commenced, the concept of an auditorium in which the public sits surrounding the musicians was embraced. This idea had already demonstrated its effectiveness at the Berlin Philharmonic by Scharoun and in Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall. Some acousticians consider this to be in contradiction with good acoustics, embracing the “shoebox” strategy, but there was one acoustician who had already developed acoustic strategies that could cope with this idea of sitting in a round.  Enter Yasuhisa Toyota of Nagata Acoustics. His design for the Kauffman Center for Performing Arts has already been acknowledged to be one of the finest acoustics in the world.

Finally, there was the question of parking, essential to patron’s convenience. As the city was responsible, a debate raged between surface parking that would have dominated the view of and from the building, or going underground, providing a public park above. Happily, the later scheme prevailed.

The design phase finally moves into construction- one in which architect, engineer, contractor and sub-contractor collaborate.  This relationship between contractor and the professional team is by definition a tense one. It is one which can easily evolve into conflict and incrimination; keeping it in the spirit of collaboration is an art in itself. It is this process where engineer, architect, contractor and craftsman join forces and solve problems together towards creating a masterfully crafted building.

Recognizing the naturally interdependent acts of client and architect, specialist and contractor, in creating a setting for the performance of great art will contribute to the success of projects which are yet to come.


Video is from the Kansas City Downtown Council.


Published in Practice on September 28, 2011