American's Artsy-Curvy Turn
By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 3, 2005
Because, in our right-angled architectural culture, round is always a contrast, a surprise. Round can signify creativity and imagination. It suggests harmony with natural forms. And, sometimes, round just feels right.
All of these characteristics play a role in American University's new Cyrus and Myrtle Katzen Arts Center -- a long, long building that's round in all the right places. Well, almost all -- but let's get back to that.
The building is, in the main, a grace note on Ward Circle at the top of the Massachusetts Avenue hill. Its biggest bends, sheathed in a luminous, tan-to-tawny French limestone, play in convex counterpoint to the curves of the traffic circle. Punctuated by a couple of very large windows, the curving walls together make a powerful, yet not overpowering, architectural gesture.
This is the image the building will be remembered by. It faces the circle from the northeast, so thousands of motorists heading toward the Maryland line will see the big curves unforgettably framed by their windshields every day.
The whole building will be even more memorable, of course, when people finally arrive. Gallery director Jack Rasmussen plans a "soft opening" of the art spaces on July 16. But the building will truly come alive in the fall, with the arrival of a full complement of music, theater and art students and faculty.
"We were always very conscious of the nature of the site," says university President Benjamin Ladner, "so we wanted people who pass by but who might never enter the building to have a sense of excitement about what goes on at the university. We wanted something modern and vibrant and creative and expressing community -- and pushing the edges at the same time."
Almost all of Ladner's wishes were granted. The architectural vocabulary is hardly cutting-edge -- the striving for elegant monumentality is more reminiscent of I. M. Pei or, at a distance, the late Le Corbusier, than of anything in today's turbulent and often exhilarating architectural world. The building could have been designed in the late 1960s or mid-'70s.
All the same, thanks to lead architect Steven Kleinrock and his design team at Einhor n, Yaffee, Prescott, the new arts center is creative and vibrant and satisfying on many levels. Faced with a complex problem -- a long, narrow site and a lengthy list of functions to squeeze onto it -- these architects skillfully decided what to do, and then did it well.
On a formal level, they achieved this primarily by deploying arcs and curves to modulate the building's unavoidable length and play against its inevitable right angles. In effect, the building is a counterpoint composition of round and straight. The Katzen is longer than the Kennedy Center but you would hardly know it, because it is not boxy.
Like a barbell with curved counterweights at each end, a long, straight wall parallel to Massachusetts Avenue connects the bending forms at the traffic circle to a semi-cylindrical main entryway. These curving forms at either end provide a memorable frame for an attractive entry courtyard, designed in coordination with the Alexandria office of EDAW, a landscape architecture firm.
Except for a couple of curving paths, the courtyard is almost entirely linear, an asymmetrical arrangement of rectangular, bluestone-sheathed planters and a fountain running parallel to the "barbell." Stepping up a gentle rise from sidewalk, the courtyard promises to be a wonderfully active place on good-weather days, for all of the bluestone pieces are eminently sittable. (Or lie-down-able.)
Anyone walking or sitting in the courtyard will become instantly aware of memorable view No. 2 -- a cantilevered platform with a big, north-facing window that appears to hover above a massive oval form. The oval itself is a splendid conceit -- it's probably the most dramatic housing for a fire stairwell in all of Washington.
Inside the building, a potentially boring, exceedingly long corridor -- referred to by the architects as a unifying "Main Street" -- is resourcefully enlivened with colors and curves. The corridor passes through a spacious, cylindrical, two-story lobby with a stairwell that's also a perfect place to sit. The hope, Kleinrock says, is for impromptu gatherings and even performances. They'll happen, most likely, because the space is exceedingly pleasant and sociable.
The Katzen center pulls together academic functions that had been spread across the campus -- art studios, music and theater classrooms, music practice rooms and departmental faculty offices. But it also adds important new facilities and areas, such as the outdoor and indoor gathering spaces, an experimental black-box theater, a dance rehearsal space and a splendidly intimate 207-seat recital hall.
The main public impact, however, will be from the art exhibition spaces. Galleries behind the rounded walls and big windows facing Ward Circle encompass about 24,000 square feet. A burrowed sculpture garden, open to the sky, adds 6,000 square feet. This is 40 times the display space in the Watkins Gallery, the polite little International Style building that the university is abandoning in favor of the Katzen. More to the point, it is more square footage for exhibition than at the Freer Gallery of Art on the Mall, for example, or the Phillips Collection (even after its expansion is completed next year). Size isn't everything, of course, but this amount of space gives the Katzen a head start to becoming a force on the Washington art scene.
I'm tremendously ambivalent about the quality of the space, however. As architecture, it is interesting, even exciting. There are dramatic stairwells, surprising overlooks, intriguing cul-de-sacs. It is the kind of space that invites movement, and will be fun to move through.
And to look out of. Those big front windows do indeed provide superb balcony views of the green traffic circle and its statue of Artemas Ward, one of the city's lesser-known bronze heroes. (He was, briefly, the first commander of America's revolutionary army.) From this perch we see the standing Ward from the back, and thus can admire at leisure his majestic cape -- there is simply no other word for the massive bronze accouterment, with its columnar folds.
"We wanted the people inside to understand the building's connection to the city in the most direct way possible," Kleinrock says. And it definitely works. A visitor senses the larger order of the city, with its wide diagonal boulevards.
On the other hand, the gallery spaces are classic examples of architecture that tries to be art rather than be for art. Most of the walls are curved. Many of the curves are based on short radii, and thus make hanging large rectangular objects difficult to impossible. There is a lot of exhibition space, yes, but most of it is wide open -- there is very little intimacy or definition. Furthermore, the spaces are configured in a way that will make partitioning them into "rooms" (as the Hirshhorn Museum does with its much broader curved walls) an awkward enterprise. The atmosphere is active, rather than contemplative.
And then there is the sculpture garden. This is, without question, one of the worst art exhibition spaces on the planet. It is a curiously angular outdoor room with concrete walls as much as 18 feet high. The concrete floor appears to be more a setting for night lights, angled toward the rounded building above, than for artwork. The odd shape, says architect Kleinrock, was determined in part by property lines -- the perimeter walls on the south and west mark the border between land owned by the university and by the National Park Service. That may explain, but definitely does not improve, this graceless leftover space.
Rasmussen, who was appointed well after construction was underway and thus had no input into the design, puts a polite face on things. "No artist that I've talked to," he says, "has not been excited by the opportunity to work in these spaces." That may be, but he's talking mainly about installation art, rather than, say, any of the 4,000 more conventional artworks in the university's collection. So Rasmussen and curator Jonathan Bucci have a challenge on their hands. It'll be interesting, at the very least, to see their evolving responses to these interiors. The sculpture garden, however, will remain irredeemable without some sort of major overhaul.
Still, the appearance of this flawed building on Ward Circle remains in key ways a happy event. It gives distinguished visibility to American University, whose campus is largely screened from public view on the other side of Massachusetts Avenue. It provides fitting focus on the centrality of artistic creativity to the human spirit. And my, when seen from certain points of view, it cuts a beautiful profile against the evening sky.