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Pride Of The Prairie

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

When managing principal Brad Nederhoff and his colleagues were sharing their plans to equip the new Flint Hills Discovery Center’s distinctive central glass cylinder with a program- mable colored light system, the mayor of Manhattan, Kansas, had one question: Could the cylinder lights shine in Kansas State University purple?

The Verner Johnson architects assured the mayor that the feature could, in fact, celebrate the local university’s colors—and that would be only one of the building’s many imaginative details.

Inspired by the colors, textures, and landscapes of the state’s Flint Hills prairie, the Discovery Center’s curving design would be the anchor of an extensive city improvement plan that would include a new hotel, convention center, entertainment spaces, and retail.

“They wanted something that was iconic and of significance visually. It be- came sort of a gateway building. When you enter the city, you drive across a bridge and then at the end of the bridge is the building. It’s the first thing you see,” Nederhoff says. “So we wanted to make something that was a strong statement and that was emblematic not only of the museum but also of the city.”

Using local limestone to recall the natural forms of the region—the country’s last remaining tall grass prairie—Nederhoff and project architect Jonathan Kharfen created a series of undulating plateaus, connected by ramps and stairways. Museum exhibits were designed with a similar mindset by Hilferty & Associates. The glass entry cylinder also followed nature’s lead, its various blue tones echoing the water that once covered the landscape.

“One of the things we did was blur the lines between where the build- ing starts and where the site starts,” Nederhoff says. “It appears to grow out of the site.” 

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