Reflecting On Bloch Building's 10 Years, Architect Says It's One Of His Most Significant Works

Nov 9, 2017

It's been a decade since the Bloch Building began illuminating the east side of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and its architect, Steven Holl, says it remains one of his most important works.

The sentiment was echoed by Time magazine in 2007, when it dubbed the structure that year's top "architectural marvel."

Despite critical acclaim, the building at first didn't find as much favor locally. While visiting an exhibit showcasing the building's history, including pieces about the public pushback, Holl remembered welcoming controversy as part of the process with creative work.

"You will have some people who are questioning because you're doing something fresh, you're doing something new, you're doing something that's aspiring to the beyond," he told host Brian Ellison on KCUR's Up to Date. "And I think that's happened through the history of architecture and will continue to happen."

Returning to his building on its tenth anniversary, Holl reflected on how he went against the contest rules to ultimately land the gig, and about the influence light has had on his most notable works.

Architecture firms were told to submit designs in which the new building abutted the original museum. But, Holl said, he knew immediately he did not want a plan that blocked the Nelson-Atkins' facade — and read an inscription from it during his presentation to prove his point.

Architect Steven Holl designed the Bloch Building at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
Credit Mark Heitoff

"It says, 'The soul has greater need of the ideal than of the real.' And I said, 'You know, I got the courage to break your rules because I'm following the directive in your original facade. This is the ideal approach.'"

The committee agreed unanimously.

Even though his building plan eventually changed conceptually from its initial plan to what stands on the hill today, Holl said his end goal stayed the same.  

"To try to make a place where the art is absolutely in the foreground, but without making a neutral white box that I think sucks the life out of art," Holl said.

Out of about 50 realized works, Holl said the Bloch Building and the Chapel of St. Ignatius, located in his hometown of Seattle, are the most important of his career.

"They are idealistic," he said. "They are both working with light."

Holl also said he was pleased that these two buildings, 10 years old and 20 years old, respectively, have retained their integrity.

"A building that looks as new as this looks after 10 years is rare, so I am very proud of that."

The Bloch Building has also helped him win more jobs since 2007, he said, noting that members of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston selection committee came to visit the Bloch Building as part of their process. That building is now under construction.

Holl's buildings can be found nationally and around the globe, with much of his work in China. His most recent job is the new Doctors Without Borders headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, for which his firm won the design competition earlier this month. 

In addition to working as a practicing architect, Holl teaches the subject at Columbia University in New York City and is the author of Anchoring, a book exploring the relationship between design and space. 

Listen to Steven Holl's entire conversation with Brian Ellison here

Kathleen Pointer is an assistant producer for KCUR's Up To Date. Follow her on Twitter, @kathleenpointer.