Correction to This Article
A July 3 article on American University's Katzen ArtsCenter identified Steve Kleinrock as the lead architect on the project. The article should have indicated that Kleinrock was the design principal and Jamshid Sepehri was the senior designer for the project.

American's Artsy-Curvy Turn

By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 3, 2005

Why round?

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.)


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