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.
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American's Artsy-Curvy Turn

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.

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