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KC firm BNIM will help design $100 million expansion of Kennedy Center

Updated: 2013-04-05T14:53:58Z

By KEVIN COLLISON

The Kansas City Star

For a couple of Kansas City architects from the baby boomer generation, it’s the stuff of legend.

As in Camelot.

The architecture firm BNIM has been chosen to collaborate with renowned New York architect Steven Holl to help design a $100 million expansion to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

The 1.5 million-square-foot center, which opened in 1971, includes nine theaters and is one of the nation’s biggest and busiest performing arts centers and a cultural touchstone.

In 1999, Holl selected BNIM to assist on the acclaimed Bloch Building addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

And with new vision for the Kennedy Center bearing some resemblance to the Bloch Building, he has reached out to BNIM again to be his firm’s sole partner on the project. BNIM will help refine Holl’s ideas to the point of construction-ready drawings.

The opportunity to work on the nation’s premier stage has Casey Cassias, 61, and J. Gregory Sheldon, 59, the local architects assigned to the project, channeling their inner boyhood.

Both were kids when Kennedy was president during that optimistic once-upon-a-time referred to as Camelot.

“It’s very humbling,” Cassias said. “I grew up in that era of Kennedy and had a lot of admiration for Kennedy and what a leader he was.

“Here we are, with these humble Midwest roots, and the incredible opportunity to work on this Kennedy expansion is the opportunity of a lifetime.”

Added Sheldon: “It’s pretty darn cool.”

The Kennedy Center is on the Potomac River just northwest of one of the most hallowed locations in the country, the National Mall.

Holl and his senior partner, Chris McVoy, envision three connected pavilions totaling 65,000 square feet cascading south of the existing building to the river. They are being situated to offer a framed view from the Kennedy Center of the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials.

As with the Bloch Building, the pavilions will rise from parklike terrain and cap larger underground spaces devoted to classrooms, multipurpose rooms, rehearsals and a new public entrance to the center.

The exteriors will use translucent Okalux insulated glass and Carrara marble, the same Italian marble used for the Kennedy Center.

And in a nod to the late president’s love for the water and his service in the Navy in World War II, the proposal calls for the third pavilion to be built on a platform floating in the Potomac and including an outdoor performance stage.

One of the pools in the landscaping scheme proposed by Holl also will use the dimensions of Kennedy’s patrol boat, PT-109.

The plan also calls for a Kennedy quotation, “When we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch it, we are going back from whence we came,” to be sandblasted into the wall of the waterfront pavilion.

Cassias, a principal at BNIM, said he didn’t realize the Kennedy Center, which was designed by Edward Durell Stone, was intended to be Washington’s “living memorial” to the late president.

The entrance to the main building has a large bust of Kennedy and two information kiosks, but the expansion calls for creating a space for visitors that will be more directly associated with the late president.

“Conceptually it calls for a series of memorial quotes etched in glass and mementos from the Kennedy family in a dedicated pavilion away from the Kennedy Center itself,” Cassias said

BNIM’s relationship with Steven Holl Architects began with the Bloch Building and has extended to other projects besides the Kennedy Center.

Shortly after the Bloch project opened in 2007, Holl invited BNIM to participate in designing a performing arts center at Princeton University in New Jersey. That project, the Lewis Center for the Arts, is now in the design stage.

BNIM also was hired to repair a Holl-designed School of Art and Art History building on the campus of the University of Iowa that was damaged by flooding in 2008.

The Kennedy Center opportunity came up early last fall. Cassias said he got a mysterious call from Holl’s partner, McVoy, asking whether he could come to Washington, but he couldn’t say why.

He was a bit skeptical.

“We’ve been through some wild goose chases, and I asked if it was worthwhile,” Cassias said. “He said it would be worth coming for. I got there and two representatives from the Kennedy Center were there.”

Holl’s firm was unanimously chosen by the Kennedy Center board to design the expansion, but it needed help. The New York firm is relatively small, about 30 employees, and it has up to 20 projects going on around the world at any one time.

Despite their experience, Cassias thought it was a leap for BNIM to tackle such a high-profile project alone with Holl.

“We had no experience in D.C. or the Kennedy Center, and no office in D.C., and I asked, ‘Why us?’” Cassisas said. “But it was this good working relationship we had with Steven.”

McVoy, the partner in charge of the Bloch Building project, described BNIM as a “great collaborator.”

“Casey Cassias has more integrity than any architect I know,” McVoy said. “Greg Shelton is an expert at the art of making a building.

“BNIM shares with us a commitment to an architecture that outlasts the individuals who make it, an architecture that gives joy and speaks of our time.”

It helped too that Marc Wilson, a former director of the Nelson-Atkins, and Dana Knapp, who helped manage the Bloch project, endorsed BNIM’s work.

The Kennedy Center itself also has a Kansas City connection.

Its president, Michael M. Kaiser, was once the general manager of the Kansas City Ballet, and Donald Hall Jr. is on the Kennedy Center board of trustees. Kaiser was in Kansas City in 2011 to dedicate the Todd Bolender Center for Dance & Creativity, a project designed by BNIM.

“We are very happy to work with the company that brought us the Todd Bolender Center and the Bloch Building at the Nelson-Atkins Museum,” Kaiser said. “We look forward to working with BNIM in the months and years ahead.”

Though Holl is the creative brain who came up with the concept, BNIM’s role is far from simply stamping drawings or running errands.

“We work with them as a team, one hand working with another,” Cassias said.

“It’s very much Steven’s idea. He finds the essence of the problem and the way to solve it. That’s when you start the process of designing it with materials and ideas. It really becomes a collaboration.”

The announcement of the Kennedy Center expansion was accompanied by a $50 million gift toward its construction by David M. Rubenstein, chairman of the board. Congress approved the project but required it to be funded privately.

The center has started a $75 million fundraising campaign, with $25 million to be set aside for programming. The timetable calls for the design and approvals to take about three years, construction two years and completion in 2018.

To reach Kevin Collison, call 816-234-4289 or send email to kcollison@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter at kckansascity.

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