Building the Kauffman

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It’s the exuberance of music, the sculptural embodiment of sound springing out of the earth.

At least that’s BNIM associate architect Amy Slattery’s interpretation of the tidal wave that is the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, the already iconic building that has changed the Kansas City skyline, giving the city’s arts community a grand, world-class home.

While the 33-year-old mother of two is excited she’s contributed to high-profile projects during her nine years with BNIM (she also worked on the Bloch Building at the Nelson-Atkins), she’s even more jazzed about the positive impact her work will have on the world her children inhabit. “These kind of projects don’t happen that often, with the meaning this one has to my community and to my city,” she says.

Since 2004, Slattery and BNIM have collaborated with Moshe Safdie of Boston-based Safdie Architects as executive architects on the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Slattery’s main roles were organizing drawing sets, reviewing detailed drawings of the steel exterior shell, and coordinating design dialogue with Safdie’s office.

Walking down the hallways overlooking the elegant lobby of the Kauffman Center one afternoon, with lazy sunlight spilling through the north-facing wall of windows and illuminating the undulating, white walls, Slattery seems as relaxed as if giving a tour of her new home. She gestures: “These stairs are a piece of my life.”

Thanks to the Young Architects Award she received this year from the American Institute of Architects (one of 11 awarded nationwide), and the fact that she’s “one of the few right now who’s both a woman and a mom and working on something big like this,” Slattery has received her share of the attention surrounding the Kauffman Center’s opening. She is, however, quick to point out that architecture is by nature a collaborative profession. “I’m one of over 20 people on the project at BNIM,” she says. “I’m proud of my contribution, but there are actually many who contributed more to the actual exection.”

A small-town girl from Steelville, Mo., Slattery grew up loving math, science, and art, and found the intersection of the three in architecture, a vocation she selected as a fourth-grader. After attending the University of Kansas she adopted Kansas City as her hometown and feels she’s had more professional opportunities than she would have had in a larger, coastal city. That’s one of the main reasons she and her husband, also an architect, decided to stay.

“There’s a lot of art in the culture here, and that makes this a good place to get your feet wet and be involved in really interesting stuff,” she says. “With BNIM, I’ve had amazing opportunities to do amazing work. There’s more opportunity. People think you can only do great design on the coasts, and in reality, this is where it’s happening.”

Architecture is traditionally a male-dominated profession. There are nearly as many female architecture students as male, but the number of women who go on to become practicing architects drops sharply, with only approximately 20 percent of female students getting licensed. To encourage more women to stay in architecture, Slattery co-founded Women in Design Kansas City. The group provides mentorship, advocacy, and support and will award its first scholarship this fall.

Slattery hopes Women in Design will serve as a support system during the initial five- to 10-year entry period, when architects must put in long hours and learn to navigate what she calls a “macho culture.” “It’s hard on family life, so there has to be sacrifice and decision-making,” she says. “It’s a tough profession. But I love the work so much that I’m willing to put in the extra time.”

That’s not to say it’s been easy to achieve an ideal work-life balance. Slattery’s five-year-old son and two-year-old daughter were both born while she was working on the Kauffman Center. “I sometimes call this one my third kid, this building,” she laughs. “You have to take it each day at a time and look at the grander scheme of things.” She credits her husband for being an “amazing partner,” as well as BNIM for flexibility while she was on maternity leave and allowing her to work part-time when she returned.

Slattery’s next project is the Western Institute of Nanotechnology on Green Engineering and Metrology building at UCLA, for which she’ll travel weekly to Los Angeles. But she feels the investment is worthwhile—the building will house research on the next frontiers in energy, a prospect that excites Slattery.

Though maintaining balance can be difficult, Slattery feels “blessed.” “I’ve been able to move things forward, and so far it seems like everybody’s still OK.” she laughs. “I take the idea that I’m trying to better my kids’ world to heart.”
 

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