Sunday, April 4, 2010

Safdie+KCAIsixteen: a mural for the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts...Part 1: what are we supposed to do today?

On Thursday, the first day of April, the architect Moshe Safdie spent the morning with his sixteen Kansas City Art Institute collaborators. “What are we supposed to do today?” he asked them.

The sixteen art students will begin painting a mural inside the new Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts sometime in May. A mural of a grand scale, 4 stories high, 24 large panels, an epic mosaic, panels with vertical “bumps” reminiscent of rounded half-shafts of bamboo, horizontal slats in front of the panels, atmospheric lighting, all designed to make you feel something.

On this morning the seventeen collaborators discussed four designs created by the “KCAI sixteen”. Four artists made short presentations about their team-developed prototypes. Each design expressed a character and a mood. Words mixed with the expressions of color, shape, gesture, texture, and style. Molly’s words mixed with a liquid vision. Todd articulated shades and shapes with an urban atmosphere. Michelle said little because the colors and strokes boldly sang. Blake displayed a dream.

Safdie smiled. He asked questions such as “how will this survive over time?”, “how will the slats in front of the mural affect the colors and movement of the shapes?”…Then began the painting with words and he invited everyone to bring words to the palette of discussion. Instead of selecting design 1. 2. 3. or 4, the design team dreamed their way into the 1,800 person theater, stepping back. Moshe Safdie stood up at one point, walked to the back of the room, and admitted that he had a hard time placing himself inside the room, to envision the work on the wall.

Notice how the prototypes give you the feeling of peering at a painting through curved and flowing shaped window panes. A flat prototype for a rather complex real-life situation. The discussion included considering how the bumpy mural surface will affect shapes, color and gesture at various angles in the room. Thin slats in front of the mural panels will create a white space. Do the designs have an integral whole, a context that will speak as a unified when one views the work from afar? More questions.

What sort of mood is appropriate for the space? What do you feel before, during and after a performance of opera, a musical, a play?

Delighted, the team turned what was thought to be selection process into a synthesis of styles, a recognition that this project will change, and then change more as the team paints, the lighting technicians light, the carpenters build, the architect dreams. There will be a plan but expect bending, shading, shadow, and surprises along the way.

Two designs became one. The team will add some depth to the liquid piece. Another design modified. Intensify the color. Build a few ¼ scale panels, paint them, build the slats in front. Time to test the effects of lighting. Three weeks enough to do this?

One great architect and sixteen third year art students inhabited this studio space, complete with clients like Jane Chu, faculty, observers. Together, they collectively sensed something momentous about this discussion without allowing the beauty of the moment to overshadow the answer to Moshe Safdie’s question, “What are we supposed to do today?”.

What was perhaps supposed to happen, in some people’s minds, didn’t. Creative life appears to be a messy lumpy palette sometimes until you mix the colors and apply them to surfaces and situations…and step back for a moment. This particular 90 minute window of time was one of those “step-back” suspensions, when artists dream and try to put into words what they feel.

Momentous? Yes. Moshe Safdie proposed that this design story, the prototypes, the sketches and models be the first exhibit in the Performing Arts Center’s gallery space at the opening.

…you can follow design team’s blog at

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