Why is Kansas City so Hot?

Last week I was in a meeting at the State Department in Washington, D.C. This is not a place that I regularly hang out, but we were there being interviewed by the State Department for overseas Embassy design commissions. They were eager to learn more about BNIM and at some point in the session the head of planning blurted out, "What is going on in Kansas City? Why is Kansas City so hot? Why are we hearing so much about architecture, art and music emanating from Kansas City?"

My first thought was that he thinks BNIM is hot, which is very good news to hear from someone who is going to choose our team (or another) for this contract. But, from the looks on the faces of the others in the room, his question about our city was of interest to all. The Kansas City story is getting out. This is a good “climate change,” so to speak. Once a flyover and now a fertile breeding ground for art and design. We — all Kansas-citians — should be happy and proud.

I answered his question from my own point of view, which begins with Jim Leedy moving to the Crossroads and Review Magazine beginning publication.

There is still much credit due to the major watershed events the ensued — The Jazz District revitalization, The Bloch Building, Michael Stern joining the Symphony, The Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, the Todd Bolender Center for Dance and Creativity, the Sprint Center and the list goes on. The whole is much greater than the sum of the parts. It was not as if a light bulb went off everyone jumped on board. There was not a conscious decision to elevate design, arts and architecture and put Kansas City on the map. Instead, an organic process grew into one of the healthiest ecologies on the planet — one rivaling New York with all of its creativity and creative people.

But Jim Leedy's decision to “hermit crab,” or take for his shell, an old concrete warehouse building in the Crossroads was a act of many things, but it is perhaps most significant because it began a movement.

The Jim Leedy that evolved was part pioneer, entrepreneur, community organizer, artist, teacher, real estate developer, art promoter, civic activist and always a mentor. Intentional or not, his actions pulled art and artists out of classrooms and studios, hallowed halls of the Nelson and Kemper, private homes and dealer locations sprinkled about the Plaza area and into the center of the city.

Business and civic leaders were not going to go to the artists, so the artists went to the leadership of the city and joined them in revitalizing downtown. The result is a vibrant, authentic, diverse, and sometimes gritty, community disguised as a warehouse district. Art became the growth market for downtown and a single monthly event transformed the community — First Fridays. These Friday gatherings on the first Friday of every month brought the community together by reaching beyond the arts community into the general population, which was eager to be a part of something. First Fridays had the impact of transforming many people into supporters and collectors with it’s social power.

The other seminal transformation for Kansas City is the creation of Review Magazine. Prior to Review artists, architects and others in creative businesses were accustomed to buyers and clients in Kansas City believing that to get something really good you had to go to the coasts, or at least Chicago. That had not always been the case. There were periods when Kansas City architects were trusted with the communities most important assignments — The Kansas City Power and Light Building, City Hall, County Courthouse, Municipal Auditorium, the Nelson-Atkins Museum and 909 Walnut are among our most treasured buildings and are the work of home grown talent and designed during a very short period of city history.

By the 1970s times had changed for artists and architects. We carried a huge chip on our collective shoulder for a couple decades. Review magazine changed that. Through intelligent critical reviews and beautifully published pages the work of many talented local and regional artists was revealed to the community. Word began to spread that the arts scene in Kansas City was alive, relevant and breaking new ground. Confidence grew within he entire community — artists, dealers, collectors and museums — as a result of the publication and because of the extraordinary talent and excellent work being done in Kanas City.

Review did not stop with art. The publication branched out into urban design and architecture with similar impact. By offering editorial opportunities to architects and urban designers, important issues surrounding the public realm and built environment were being discussed. Architects and urbanists created design proposals for our City and presented them in annual issues devoted to urbanism.

The results were similar. Talented designers presented many ideas for making Kansas City a more beautiful and vibrant urban environment. In doing so, the public became optimistic, capable of re-envisioning the city and aware of the talent in their own hometown.

As with all good ideas and transformations, not everything stayed local. During this period, architects from Kanas City proposed a global idea to the American Institute of Architects, which changed the practice of architecture and building, allowing it to become what it is today. A group of AIA Kansas City board members wrote a resolution that was presented and approved at the AIA National Convention in 1989. Critical Planet Rescue (CPR) called for architects to change the way that they design and construct buildings in order to be better stewards of people and the planet.

Sustainable building and green design were founded in Kansas City with this resolution. LEED, Living Building Challenge and other metrics are the result of Kansas City designers making contributions to industry change that encourage thinking globally and acting locally.

Kansas City is also the home of sports architecture. The number of firms that specialize in sports facilities is growing locally and nationally, however all trace their roots back to a few individuals who created this specialization about forty years ago in Kansas City. This is important professional practice and business enterprise for the city. Creative ideas and excellent services are exported and dollars are imported from across the country and the globe, while future leaders in the field are trained and continue to hone talents and skills here in Kansas City.

William Whitener and Jeff Bentley continue the Todd Bolender tradition of excellence and put Kansas City ballet and dance on the national stage. University of Missouri – Kansas City (UMKC) Conservatory Professor Zhou Long received the Pulitzer Prize for music. Alvin Ailey makes Kanas City their second home. Michael Stern elevates the Kansas Symphony to national stature. Kansas State University and University of Kansas continue to maintain a joint studio in downtown Kansas City, Missouri to train future architects, landscape architects, interior architects and planners. The Nelson-Atkins Bloch Building is one of 10 Best New and Upcoming Architectural Marvels in the world. Nationally recognized UMKC Conservatory announces plan to create new arts campus in Downtown Kansas City.

Kansas City designers and architects are receiving national recognition as never before. There are four National AIA Honor Award recipients in Kansas City — BMA Tower, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art Bloch Building, Liberty Memorial and the Todd Bolender Center for Dance and Creativity. Three have been awarded in the past five years. Three Kansas City projects by local firm el dorado were honored by Architect Magazine in its 2012 Annual Design Review: Troost Bridge, Trail Center at Camp Prairie Schooner, Boulevard Brewing Company Cellar 1 Expansion. In 2008, the architectural league of New York selected that same firm as one of its Emerging Voices.

We are particularly proud that as a Kansas City firm, our projects have received esteemed national recognition: two National Honor Awards, eight AIA Top Ten COTE Awards in the program’s history, two National Preservation Awards in 2012, the AIA’s 2011 National Firm Award, four American Society of Landscape Architecture National Honor Awards, the Urban Land Institute Financial Times highest award and the American Planning Association Daniel Burnham Award for the sustainable master plan for Greensburg, Kansas.

Kansas City is hot. Kansas City is a breeding ground for new ideas. Talent is one of our greatest natural resources. It is a place closely connected to nature and her powerful forces. Our comfort with innovation and, at the same time, close connection to history and the world around us are both at the root of what is going on in Kansas City and causing others to take notice nationally.

The Boeing flyover that once passed Kansas City by is no longer. What remains is nature’s flyway traversed by millions of fowl each year in the journey between Alberta and southern destinations. Kansas City is a breeding ground for art and design. Kansas City's creativity is being exported across the nation and globe. That is why people are asking, “What’s going on in Kansas City; why is it so hot?”

STEVE MCDOWELL, FAIA, is BNIM’s Director of Design. He is an innovator, and his workplace is a laboratory for exploring ideas related to site, environment and technical investigation.

Kansas City image from flickr, Courtesy Missouri Department of Tourism

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