Kansas City Blues

Posted: Oct 12, 2007 12:01 AM
Kansas City Blues

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - It's been a while, about 50 years, since I was here. It was usually on one of those weekends when the fraternity's pledge class would head out to the nearest big city. Half of us headed west to Kansas City, the other east to St. Louis. I was always in the Kansas City contingent. After all, it was one of those places Where the West Begins. It had vistas, fountains, parks, river walks, the old Muehlebach Hotel, Kansas City sirloin and prime rib, and, sweetest and soulfulest of all, the Kansas City blues. Who could resist?

On one visit, a blind date who had a sense of humor gave me her street address: 4525 Oak. I drove up the spacious driveway promptly at 7, whereupon she stepped out from behind the pillars of the impressive mansion and came flouncing down the short set of concrete stairs. Quite an entrance.

It didn't take me long to realize the young lady had emerged from theshadows of the William Rockhill Nelson Art Gallery - a 1930ish example of what might be called industrial classical. Back then, it had stood in solitary dignity. Much has changed since, not necessarily for the better. Now a couple of gigantic Claes Oldenburg shuttlecocks have been plunked downon the once wide, unbroken expanse of lawn - as if the visitor had interrupted a gigantic game of badminton.

More unsettling, a kind of big, segmented tube has been attached to the stately old museum. Like a vermiform appendix. It looks like the standard airport concourse, only without the personality. I kept looking for the screen showing Arrivals and Departures. The new addition goes on and on likesome huge nematode, raising the fear that, even if you cut it in half, eachof the halves would just grow back again.

The new addition is as unfixable as some amorphous Thing From Another Planet in a bad sci-fi flick. It makes quite a contrast with the old museum it'sbeen attached to like a parasite. Old dignity, meet new shapelessness.

The architect's statement we're handed proudly compares the new addition with the original, much to the disadvantage of the original, listing qualities for each:

Original . . .                                   New . . .

Opaque                                        Transparent

Heavy                                            Light

Hermetic                                      Meshing

Inward views                              Views to landscape

Bounded                                     Unbounded

Directed                                       Open circulation

Single mass                               Transparent lenses

Only one obvious comparison is missing. Original building: Character. New addition: None.

The handout from the architect waxes prosaic. Its 21st century artspeak is a typical specimen of the ersatz language one finds engraved on museum walls these days like so much verbal mold. The statement makes up for what it lacks in precision by its sheer, free-flowing volume, much like the wormy architecture of the new addition itself. Consider this sample: (Braceyourself.)

"As visitors move through the new addition, they will experience a flow between light, art, architecture and landscape, with views from one level to another, from inside to outside. The threaded movement between the light-gathering lenses of the new addition weaves the new building with the landscape in a fluid dynamism based on a sensitive relationship to its context. Rather than an addition of a mass, the new elements exist incomplementary contrast with the original 1933 classical 'Temple of Art.' "

All of which sounds like just a bunch of fluid dynamism to me. The final touch is those superfluous quotation marks around Temple of Art. This kind of wordwurst would be incomplete without them, like a greasy salami without those whitish specks of pure fat embedded in the indistinguishable ingredients.

To translate the press release into plain English, which is a rare commodity these days in the art world or anywhere else, the new addition augments the neo-classical with the nondescript.

The effect from the outside is equally appalling, even obscene - as if along stretch of bowel had been flung off the operating table and missed thepail, winding up instead in what once had been a lovely garden.

The great thing about the new addition is supposed to be its translucence, the way it admits the outdoor light. The wistful glow of a fall afternoon fading into evening is indeed beautiful. But why would anyone want to filter it through this huge, milky intestine?

There's a reason for continuity in architecture - for why new additions to the old should be in the same style, or at least not clash with it. There's a reason for restraint in art. But we may not remember it till restraint is gone. Then the reason for it becomes all too apparent. Even translucent.