Hearing on Kennedy Center Expansion Raises Timely Questions
• Reduce the size of the plaza.
• More effectively bring activity to the plaza while reducing roads and vehicle traffic in the plaza.
• Reposition new buildings atop the deck to allow future development of adjacent, mixed-use structures.
• Configure new buildings to enhance views of, and into, the Kennedy Center complex from surrounding areas and from the Roosevelt Bridge.
• Redesign the Potomac River overlook on the west side of the Kennedy Center to ensure unobstructed views from the terrace, and to improve connections to the waterfront and Rock Creek and Potomac Trail.
To illustrate what such revisions might entail, the D.C. planning director, Andrew Altman, appeared at the hearing accompanied by his office's urban design consultants, Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn. EEK principal Stanton Eckstut presented a graphic analysis of the city context in relationship with the Kennedy Center and suggested a number of alternative design strategies.
Casting the urban design net more widely, EEK showed the Kennedy Center strongly linked to the Lincoln Memorial, visually and symbolically, by means of a continuous, formally composed landscape, in effect bending and extending the Mall's axis northwest to the Kennedy Center. Shown were stronger ties to Foggy Bottom, with New Hampshire Avenue leading directly to and from the Kennedy Center without pedestrian-unfriendly obstructions.
EEK also showed how development of new buildings and a vehicular plaza could act as the western end of Virginia Avenue, create a spatial gateway to Rock Creek Park and resolve the currently messy confluence of park, streets and Whitehurst Freeway ramps north of the Watergate complex.
Some of EEK's proposals, although potentially good ideas, are clearly beyond the scope of the current project and beyond the control of the applicants. But reducing substantially the size and shape of the grandiose, overscaled Kennedy Center plaza, and increasing development density and uses around the plaza, are both feasible and desirable.
Presumably, with concept approval in hand, the applicants and their consultants will take into account these suggestions as they proceed further with design. Yet last week's commission hearing posed implicit questions that frequently arise when projects are submitted for conceptual design review. What is the exact meaning of "concept"? How much or how little does concept approval limit subsequent design evolution and flexibility? At what point do post-approval design modifications change a concept sufficiently to cast doubt on the original approval?
Let's hope these questions fade as the Kennedy Center project sponsors revise their concept to comply with the planning commission and planning office recommendations. Let's also hope that they, as well as the commissioners, recognize that last week's vote does not mean that the approved concept needs only tweaking.
Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.
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