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Safdie’s $413 Million Glass Tent, Big Onions Thrill Kansas City

Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts
The exterior of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City. Designed by Boston architect Moshe Safdie, of Safdie Architects, the $413-million center opened Sept. 16, 2011. Photographer: Tim Hursley/Resnicow Schroeder Associates via Bloomberg

The new Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts faces downtown Kansas City, Missouri, with two bulging stainless-steel onions, sliced vertically. They cover a city block.

I liked them immediately. Their primal volumes glint in the sharp sunlight as evocatively as the paint-peeling grain silos that line nearby railroad lines.

The onions are the back of the building.

I walked around front to find the roof ski-slopes down to form a tent of glass over the lobby. It takes 27 massive cables to stake this off-kilter circus tent to the ground.

The architect, Boston-based Moshe Safdie, 73, fires off big architectural gestures like a howitzer in this $413 million new home for the Kansas City Ballet, Kansas City Symphony and Lyric Opera. Placido Domingo and Itzhak Perlman headlined inaugural performances Sept. 16 and 17.

The center’s glass-tent front opens a welcoming 330-foot-wide smile to neighborhoods sloping away to the south. It stands proudly as a city-scale object, defying the received wisdom that such buildings should snuggle amid skyscrapers, spilling happy patrons into downtown streets lined with sidewalk cafes.

Safdie saw that streets are lonely in Kansas City, because people cocoon themselves in autos to cross vast spaces alternately whipped by icy winds and roasted by heat.

Stays Upright

I entered the lobby, the Brandmeyer Great Hall, which is blindingly bright in daytime. More tightly stretched cables hold the huge glass panels in place and keep the 65-foot-high canted front wall from falling over.

Within the vast space, two cylindrical structures appear to lunge toward the glass. They wrap a concert hall and a theater for opera and ballet with concourses that enliven the lobby with people on four levels.

To understand the bizarre result, picture a couple of Guggenheim museums snuggled under the high-tech tent. The references make no sense but the totality is undeniably spectacular.

Cash-strapped taxpayers aren’t on the hook, except for a $47 million city-funded parking garage, because the complex was largely funded privately. (Missouri allowed givers a $1 tax credit for every $2 donated.)

Philanthropist Muriel McBrien Kauffman started the building project not long before she died in 1995. Led by her daughter, Julia Irene Kauffman, family foundations would ultimately give a whopping $135 million.

This costly urban bauble opened amid a grinding recession because waiting wasn’t an option after 16 years of financial setbacks and redesigns.

Orating Shriners

Resident companies leave behind a century-old hall built originally for orating Shriners, not music and dance.

Rows of seats in warm pecan-colored wood sweep in great curves around the 1,600-seat Helzberg Concert Hall. The 11 tiers wrap the stage in what’s called a vineyard format that is the trademark of the Tokyo acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota of Nagata Acoustics.

Mystifyingly, Safdie added shimmering metal mesh panels to the wall behind the orchestra and exposes the soaring white ribs that hold up the back of the building.

This concoction bears a family resemblance to Walt Disney Concert Hall, the spectacular concert space designed by Frank Gehry in Los Angeles. Both share an acoustical concept by Toyota. Gehry’s design has all the refinement and sensuality Helzberg lacks.

The Kauffman leadership settled on 1,600 seats, many fewer than most big-city venues, only after much debate. It’s a size more likely to offer superb acoustics.

Reason to Swoon

I heard the symphony in rehearsal. Patrons of huge barnlike halls elsewhere would swoon over the close-in viewing angles and music that felt fully present -- even in the most distant seats.

The 1,800 seats of the Muriel Kauffman Theatre form a three-tiered horseshoe of shiny balcony fronts facing a proscenium stage. It is home to the ballet and opera companies.

The horseshoe form is time-honored in opera houses because it puts a wall of patrons close to the stage. I found sightlines compromised from many of those seats, which shouldn’t happen in a new hall.

Safdie tries for theatricality, but he doesn’t have a feel for it. The balcony fronts were cast in glasslike resin but look like crumpled aluminum foil. Kansas City Art Institute students splashed color across the side walls. Plaster tendrils radiate from a softly curved half dome in the ceiling. If all these tricks added up to anything, it would be dinner theater.

Safdie’s promiscuous form-making has a generosity of spirit, but don’t look for finesse. This building dances as fast as it can. Of course, that is an apt metaphor for the arts in American culture today.

(For more information on the Kauffman Center and inaugural-season events, which include five world premieres, see

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. Island Press has just published his book, “The Agile City.”)

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