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Arena Stage complex is as stirring as the theater within

There are two compelling reasons to visit Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater: the theatrical productions and the wonderful new work of iconic modern architecture that preserves and envelops the older modern architecture.

In designing the Mead Center, Vancouver-based Bing Thom Architects faced a daunting challenge. It had to create a state-of-the-art facility to house two of the city’s most venerable cultural institutions: Arena Stage and the adjacent Kreeger Theater.

The firm designed an aesthetically bold, sometimes theatrical, architectural ensemble unlike anything else in Washington. Happily, the result is an artfully composed, dramatic 200,000-square-foot edifice in Southwest Washington. While some worry about the project’s urbanistic fit with the neighborhood, the center relates to its context perfectly.

Occupying a triangular site at Maine Avenue and Sixth Street, the Mead Center overlooks the Southwest waterfront and the Potomac River. The original exposed concrete and brick Arena Stage building, a historical landmark designed by Harry Weese, has occupied the site since it was designed in the late 1950s. With its form-follows-function geometry, the 800-seat in-the-round theater typified much American contemporary architecture of the era. Less iconic was the adjacent 514-seat, proscenium-style Kreeger Theater, built in 1971 and also designed by Weese.

Both theaters suffered from undersize lobbies, obsolete technical systems and insufficient back-of-house facilities. After years spent considering expansion at other locations, Arena’s board of directors, including artistic director Molly Smith, decided to stay put. The decision was influenced by the prospect of favorable changes in the neighborhood.

The board also decided to preserve the two theaters. This meant raising $125 million to upgrade the Arena building (now called the Fichandler Stage in honor of Arena’s founder) and the Kreeger House.

The money was also used to add another theater (the 200-seat Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle), construct new back-of-house facilities and provide generous public spaces serving all three houses.

Today, those driving along Maine Avenue can immediately comprehend Bing Thom’s impressively scaled design concept.

A curving, 475-foot-long cantilevered roof sweeps across the site and seems to float weightlessly above the entire complex. Symbolic yet practical, the unifying grand roof shelters and envelops all three theaters. Undulating street facades below the overhanging roof consist of glass panels forming sloped, transparent curtain walls. By exposing Arena’s interiors, passersby can readily observe inside activity while people inside can enjoy panoramic views of the city and river.

At the triangular site’s western and eastern extremities, angular and curved concrete forms projecting from the building’s facades serve as massive aesthetic counterpoints to the roof and glazing.

Concrete reappears inside on new walls and on Arena Stage’s building, which kept its original brick panels.

Guardrails and other details are metal and glass. But most unique are diverse wood finishes that add desirable texture and chromatic warmth to the interior’s otherwise high-tech ambiance. Especially noteworthy are the laminated wood columns and struts supporting the roof and bracing the curtain walls. And the new, oval Kogod Cradle is entirely clad inside and out with horizontal wood strips stained dark brown.

The great roof spans over thousands of square feet of flowing lobby and public circulation space between and around the theaters. One level up from the lobby level is a cafe atop the Kreeger House roof. Thus, the Arena’s public realm is a visually dynamic place animated by theatergoers moving around before, during and after performances, grabbing a bite to eat, and always enjoying wonderful views inside and outside.

Back-of-house facilities that support the three theaters occupy the site’s northern boundary, away from the streets. Each house is engineered to be noise-free, with mechanical equipment residing in a soundproof basement.

The building harvests much daylight, reducing its consumption of electric power.

By remaining where it was, the center stays close to the nearby Metro. Both the proximity to public transit and the decision to recycle the existing theater structures contribute to the center’s overall sustainability plan.

The new, aesthetically unique Arena looks nothing like the mostly undistinguished buildings in the surrounding neighborhood.

A significant civic and cultural edifice, Arena has chosen to pursue an exceptional mission on a very tight site. Architectural exceptionalism clearly was called for, which is what Bing Thom has delivered.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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