Kennedy Center additions: A smart response to urban design challenges

The announcement that architect Steven Holl has been selected to lead a modest, pragmatic and surgical addition to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is the best news in a generation for those who feel the legendary marble box of culture needs to be a better neighbor. Long isolated from the city by a warren of highways, and disconnected from the Potomac River by a cantilevered balcony that limits access to Washington’s most splendid natural asset, the Kennedy Center has been a study in urban isolation since its opening in 1971.

But that could change if Holl’s design — which would place a floating pavilion in the Potomac River and reconnect the arts campus to a pathway that links Rock Creek Park and the Mall — comes to fruition. It won’t solve all the center’s problems, but it will start to chisel away at some.

Holl’s proposal, which would cost $100 million and add a modest 60,000 square feet of space, is small compared with a plan that was announced 10 years ago. In 2003, with the economy booming, the Kennedy Center dared to think big, hiring architect Rafael Viñoly to spearhead an ambitious $650 million, 400,000-square-foot plan to reconnect its isolated campus to the rest of Washington, with a deck built over nearby highway lanes, a long promenade extending E Street NW directly to the front of the arts center, and two new glass-and-steel buildings framing views of the center and adding much-needed rehearsal and office space. The center sought $400 million of federal funding for the effort, but by the summer of 2005, the hope of federal funding was dashed and the plan was shelved.

Today, the center is back with a consolation prize, and there is substantial consolation in the plan, even if it doesn’t come close to solving the center’s architectural and urban design woes. Holl is a major architect with a record of designing elegant and harmonious additions to cultural facilities. Holl’s success in 2007 with a major expansion to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., bodes well for his ability to integrate new facilities into the Kennedy Center campus.

The plans announced Tuesday are preliminary. Rather than a single, large addition— which might compete with the visual impact of the existing building — Holl proposed a set of three pavilion structures to be connected underground or by pathways and built on what is underused space south of the center.

The Kennedy Center expansion, designed by Steven Holl architects, will be constructed south of the existing facility, and will include rehearsal, classroom and public access space. (Courtesy of the Kennedy Center/The Washington Post)

One pavilion would float on the Potomac and might be used for outdoor performances. Another, dubbed the “glissando” pavilion, would include rehearsal space for the Washington National Opera, which is forced to rehearse in a facility in Takoma Park when it doesn’t have access to the Kennedy Center Opera House stage. One wall of the glissando structure — so named because its curvaceous form suggests a visual analogy to the rapid swoosh of tones that is a familiar trick of the harp or piano — would be used as an outdoor projection screen, possibly allowing for live simulcasts to al fresco audiences. A third pavilion is conceived as an entry structure, providing access for visitors arriving by bus.

Easing the isolation

All of that is subject to change and development. So far, it seems Holl’s plans will not address the inherent ugliness of Edward Durell Stone’s 1971 Kennedy Center structure, though it will mitigate its detachment from the city and the Potomac. Although Stone originally envisioned the Kennedy Center directly connected to the river by a sweeping, curving veranda, later plans pulled back from the waterfront. Today, visitors can enjoy river views from the center’s terrace, but there is no direct access to the water or the network of footpaths along it.

The center also remains isolated from the west end of the Mall and the Lincoln Memorial. Holl’s design shows paths connecting the main campus to the new river pavilion across Potomac Parkway, providing access to an open, wharflike structure built directly into the river and to the running path that links the Mall and Rock Creek Park. Parking space occupied by buses and trucks would be contained underground, and the now-barren roof of an extended parking garage (finished in 2004) would be greened with landscaping and flow directly into a more parklike setting and water garden leading to the limits of the center’s property at the Roosevelt Bridge.

All of this is a smart response to the obvious urban design challenges of the Kennedy Center. It also suggests a nice echo of the old Watergate steps, the dramatic staircase that leads from the river to the Lincoln Memorial grounds, which were once a popular site for summer concerts (staged on a barge on the river).

More challenging will be managing the profile of the pavilions as they relate not just to the larger bulk of the Kennedy Center but to the Watergate Hotel and the Lincoln Memorial. Views of the Lincoln Memorial from the center will be maintained by the careful spacing of the two pavilions closest to the main building. Early designs also suggest Holl is using the same basic strategy he used in Kansas City, breaking the new space into smaller, unique structures to minimize competition with the rigid, rectilinear lines of Stone’s design. Each pavilion is different and small enough to be a minor distraction, like the distinct ring of the triangle against the larger orchestral fabric. They slide into the landscape rather than dominate it.

That demonstrates how far we’ve come in a decade of economic malaise and a continuing realignment of national priorities away from traditional culture. The 2003 plans included substantial structures that complemented the existing one, flanking a long avenue that would have provided one of the most dramatic vistas in Washington. The current plan suggests a small garden of minimalist Hobbit houses.

Flaws that can’t be fixed

Unfortunately, nothing in the new plan addresses the atrocious architecture of the main Kennedy Center building, a giant box of ostentatious red carpet and dispiriting, Soviet-scaled corridors, with no central social hub and inferior acoustics dogging the overscale Concert Hall. Although the new connection to the river will be welcome, it isn’t a direct connection from the cantilevered river terrace, and it will be a long and perhaps impracticable hike to get to the water during intermissions. The plan neither provides for nor precludes addressing the more important missing connection, to 23rd and E streets, which isolates the center from restaurants, the Foggy Bottom Metro station and the bustling streets of the George Washington University campus.

But it is a start, and given an initial lead gift of $50 million from philanthropist David Rubenstein, it is a far more achievable plan than the one broached a decade ago. The Kennedy Center may never really engage the city, it may never have an inviting front door, and it will always be a big and plug-ugly box of blank marble. But a little bit of life will flow in through a new side channel, and that will be a distinct improvement.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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