Monday, November 28, 2011

Climbing around the Kauffman

Yesterday I went to the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts to listen to the Kansas City Symphony. This is my third visit to the building, not counting the times I climbed around inside and outside when it was under construction. I’ve watched this building come to life out my window for the last three years. I really want to like it, but I’m uncomfortable there, literally.

Many of the patrons of the classical canon arts (ballet, symphony and opera) sport grey hair. I’d estimate that 80% of the attendees to the symphony yesterday were over 50. I watched them move around the building, or rather climb around it, and realized that this beautiful building was not meant for people, not designed for humans, but rather designed for sound. It seems to be all about the acoustics.

Seating is rather cramped. People wishing to take their seats, must ask those seated to please stand to allow them to pass. The seats themselves are too low; I’m 5’9” and my knees were higher than my bottom. I felt badly for the tall chap in front of me. He had to lean forward to get comfy. Navigating from front door to one’s seat is an adventure, requiring climbing and careful use of handrails.

While Helzberg Hall sounds lovely, the interior is cold and hard which makes sense given the design that was designed with sound in mind. But it’s like sitting inside the body of an instrument, one of wondrous wooden curves. The structure impresses me yet I don’t feel as if I belong there.

The walkways come to a few unnecessary narrow points, places where moving, climbing people slow and gather like logs in a passage on an otherwise expansive river. Get ready to stand in long lines for the restroom. Try to find a drinking fountain. Exercise patience as you stand before a modern large bar with just two servers on duty. Take a gander at the price on your ticket and wince as you wait.

You may feel, as I do, that I must love and adore this new bejeweled modern cathedral without a bishop for the performing arts. This is modern and state-of-the-art as we’ve been repeatedly told. This is a building for which we should be proud; placing Kansas City on the map, garnering it a nice article in the national curator of the American consciousness, the taste-master, the vetting voice of the NY Times. And, this is a Safdie design after all, right?

I think it will take time for us to break-in this couture-like edifice. When people have time to use it, to live in it, and know it, the “it” will experience human adjustments. But, I feel this is a stiff, cold, steep, cramped place. It doesn’t feel nice at all right now. This building was built for sound in the same way a race car is built for speed. It’s a thing of beauty, but the people who visit it, who contribute to its future by purchasing tickets are afterthoughts. But that makes sense.

This building was built by people who contributed resources. These people are accustomed to having doors opened for them, valet parking, and choice seats. The designers and engineers took the lead of the acoustic designers with a bit of coaching from the master architect on his visits.

This building is not of its place; the brick-built buildings around it, the Crossroads below it as you gaze south out of the enormous glass windscreen, seems to look back in awe for a moment but then remind me that the brick is the thing of beauty here in this part of the city. The red-shaded, rectangular, six sided, molded clumps of earth are the primordial literal building blocks of the architectural soul here. Steam bent wood, computer generated spaces, CAD-designed cladding are out-of-place. Safdie should have listened to the whispers of the ghost of his one-time mentor, Louis Kahn...that interesting speech Kahn loved to give to his students; the one about the brick.

“To express is to drive.
And when you want to give something presence,
you have to consult nature.
And there is where Design comes in.

And if you think of Brick, for instance,
and you say to Brick,
"What do you want Brick?"
And Brick says to you
"I like an Arch."
And if you say to Brick
"Look, arches are expensive,
and I can use a concrete lentil over you.
What do you think of that?"
Brick says:
"... I like an Arch"”

I'm guilty of listening to the bricks in my Crossroads neighborhood...sorry.

The building stands. It's too late to flip it around to allow it to face north, downtown. I doubt if the Board will vote to remove some seats, adjust them, to cater to humans.

Those of us who love the classical canon scene have few alternate choices now. I’ll continue to go see the ballet, symphony, and opera. I’ll get used to the acoustics, the resonant coughs and sniffles that resound louder than the percussion section at times; I’ll stand to let my neighbors slip by as they repeat “sorry, sorry”. I’ll wait patiently in lines for the restroom and a drink to replenish. And I’ll climb and climb and get in better shape before my next concert.

Yet, this is a whiney bit of thought. I sound like a crotchety crusty old brick. Sorry.

What did you say, Brick?

Photograph by Theresa Wysocki


  1. Thank you for stating your thoughts! I totally agree with about 95% of your comments. (I do, however, like the way it's facing--a higher sight would have had to been chosen to really get a view of downtown). I received an Email from the Kauffman last week and they are listening to patrons to correct some flaws, but like you said, most are not correctable at this point without considerable expense. The sad thing is that according to an interview I saw this Fall, some amenities were sacrificed for perfect acoustics and in my experience, I've only been to two out of eight events where I could state that they met their goal. I LOVE the outside, but the interior--it's lack of warmth is depressing, no matter how great the performances, I don't think I'll ever leave there with a warm and fuzzy glow. It will be interesting to see after year #2 if the venue is still a hot topic and selling out.

  2. To look at... a masterpiece, to explore... much like a train wreck. I agree with the lack of warmth, space and adequate facilities to actually make patrons feel welcome. I will also continue to attend and get to know the strangers next to me as shoulders touch in the cramped seats. My most anxious moment is when leaving down the lone tiny staircase and trying to find my car in the parking garage. Thank goodness i paid a bit of attention when entering... hundreds of others did not and we found them wandering aimlessly trying to find the ride they came in! All that complaining aside... nice blog!!