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09.20.2011
Safdie's Shells
Cultural center breathes life into downtown Kansas City.
Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, MO.
Timothy Hursley

On September 16, the Safdie-designed Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts (KCPA), a 285,000-square-foot, $326 million complex that will be the home of the Kansas City Symphony, Lyric Opera, and Kansas City Ballet had its grand opening performance by world-renowned tenor Placido Domingo in the 1,800-seat Muriel Kauffman Theatre. On September 17, the opening festivities continued with violinist Itzhak Perlman in the 1,600-seat Helzberg Hall.

Top-flight performers signal the ambitions for the project and for the city as a whole. Originally conceived as three separate halls for each performance ensemble, the project reverted to two spaces due to budgetary constraints. Nonetheless, the two large shells mark the important debut of the Symphony in Helzberg Hall and the Opera and Ballet in the Muriel Kauffman Theatre. A cable stayed grand foyer and lobby enclosed by etched glass connect the Hall and Theatre with a grand terrace facing south towards the emerging Crossroads Arts District. Moshe Safdie of Safdie Architects explained, “We wanted to reverse the assumption that the lobby should be facing north towards downtown. The site almost demanded it.”

   
Left to right: The Kauffman Center backs up to a new park built over underground parking; the cable-stayed glass foyer is a vast new public gathering place; inside the theater space.
 

Central Avenue dead-ends at the KCPA exactly where the space between the two performance halls creates the cavernous north entrance. This dramatic back end serves as the gateway for the Bartle Hall Convention Center and the rest of the downtown central business district.

In 2002, Julia Kauffman, daughter of Ewing Kauffman of the Kauffman Foundation and Marion Laboratories, began courting Safdie and eventually asked him to visit the site of the future cultural center. Said Safdie, “It was a relationship that cemented itself.”

Since construction began in 2006, the communities around the KCPA have been getting ready with new shops, restaurants, and infrastructure. To increase pedestrian access from downtown, the Missouri Department of Transportation allocated $4.9 million to completely reconstruct the Broadway Bridge across Interstate 670. Directly adjacent to the KCPA, a Kansas City-funded $47 million 1,000-car underground parking garage has also been built. Jan Marcason, 4th District Kansas City Councilwoman, explained, “The Center was a catalyst for the City to make many improvements and connections to surrounding neighborhoods.”

Set at the foreground of the downtown Kansas City skyline, the KCPA plays a supporting role with its taller neighbors. Its sloping curves emerging from a hilltop vantage-point both embrace and accentuate Downtown Kansas City. “Its location shifts the center of the upper and lower city,” Safdie said. Downtown Kansas City sits atop the bluffs at the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas Rivers.

Marcason said, “This has brought worldwide attention to Kansas City as a center for arts, and we have used it as a focal point to showcase our many cultural institutions.”

Gunnar Hand