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What Is That? The Crazy Wavy Building At 9th And Paseo

Susan B. Wilson
A side view of the A. Zahner Facade from 8th and Paseo.

Driving past the building at 9th and Paseo in Kansas City without slowing down to look is hard. The facade of wavy, undulating metal soars upward and ends with an angled, round-ish top. 

But it's the mystery that really makes it hard to look away from — the building has no sign, and you have to turn onto 9th Street to find a door. This is the headquarters of A. Zahner Company, an award -winning engineering and architectural company that's been around for 118 years. 

Why did the Zahner Company go to such great lengths to make the building a masterpiece? L. William Zahner, company president and the great-grandson of the company's founder explains it well.

"People come by and see it, and they say, 'What is it?'" Zahner said. "We don't have a sign on the building. It's simply a statement of who we are."

Their claim to fame is turning metal and glass into facades that are work of art. The metal strips look like ocean currents. But Zahner calls it a "cloud wall," which was inspired by the patterns in sand dunes.

The Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts opened in September 2011.
The Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts is just one of the familiar buildings that Zahner has designed.

"It takes on these different characteristics as light hits it from different sides," Zahner said. "And it's made from aluminum and glass."

The cloud wall isn't just a pretty face, it serves an important purpose. It helped the company develop new architectural techniques as well as market the company's expertise.

"The glass system, for instance, is one of our inventions," Zahner said. "We wanted to see if it would work." 

Zahner says they not only tested the design, but people liked it and are making similar designs in San Diego, California.

Zahner is used to people's reactions of surprise and curiosity. He says the building turned the head of a Saudi Arabian sheik who was coming to Kansas City to discuss a project. 

"He sees our building and he says, 'Stop! Stop!'" Zahner said. "The driver says, 'Well, what do you want?' And he says, 'I want to get a picture of that building.' And the driver turns to him and says, 'But that's where you're going.'"

The self-cleaning outer shell took three months to build and was constructed right inside the building. 

"It's a big open space [with] cranes inside of it," Zahner said. "And workers are putting together some projects that we end up shipping all over the world."

It's somewhat unusual to find a global company in central Kansas City. But Zahner says the company has a history at the location and it fits their needs.

"We like being the hidden jewel on the east side of downtown," Zahner said. "But it's very convenient in a real respect to get on the highway and go anywhere we need to go."

Credit Susan B. Wilson / KCUR
Zahner workers inspecting a piece of sheet metal.

The Kansas City landscape holds numerous examples of the Zahner combination of fine architecture and art, including the crown at Kauffman Stadium, and the Kauffman Performing Arts Center. But the firm has made its mark globally too, from the embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia to the Chicago band shell. 

Zahner says they're trying to do something different — working with artists and architects to push the boundaries of technology and engineering. Whether it's at 9th and Paseo or around the world.

A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Susan admits that her “first love” was radio, being an avid listener since childhood. However, she spent much of her career in mental health, healthcare administration, and sports psychology (Susan holds a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania and an MBA from the Bloch School of Business at UMKC.) In the meantime, Wilson satisfied her journalistic cravings by doing public speaking, providing “expert” interviews for local television, and being a guest commentator/contributor to KPRS’s morning drive time show and the teen talk show “Generation Rap.”
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