Arena Stage's new building: a brilliant addition, and a challenge, to the city

Philip Kennicott takes a look at Arena Stage's newly renovated space near the waterfront in Washington's Southwest neighborhood.
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 26, 2010

As you negotiate the traffic-clogged lanes of I-395 as it passes over the Washington waterfront, look east, and there's a tonic on the horizon. The thin white roof of architect Bing Thom's Arena Stage is just visible, rising no higher than the urban clutter of Southwest Washington, but saying more, with more humor and poetry, than anything around it. You can see it from street level, too, as you emerge from the Waterfront Metro station, a bold expanse of canted glass, supported by inclined wooden columns and capped by a shimmering, white, cloudlike roof.

Thom's new building is unlike anything that has been built in the District. It took an outsider, a Canadian architect, to break with the usual habits of large civic architecture in the nation's capital. Thom has managed to design a structure that takes seriously the moral imperatives of contemporary architecture -- sustainability, preservation, social transparency and fidelity to the needs of the client -- without falling into cliche, empty bombast or hollow functionality. He has built a grand space, but with curves and lightness, that should function well as a performing arts center and even better as a catalyst to the neighborhood around it.

Perhaps it seems an odd building, at first. Arena was ambivalent about its old home. Its two existing theaters -- designed in the 1960s and early '70s by Harry Weese, the architect who designed Washington's Metro system -- were ugly and inadequate, but they were also historic and had landmark status. Noise from the street, and from jets using Reagan National Airport, leaked into the dun-colored brick boxes. Abandoning them for a spot near or on the water was tempting, but it would also sever a vital connection to the institution's past.

Thom chose to enclose the old theaters in a large glass terrarium, as if they were magic objects that needed to be encased and protected. Future observers may wonder whether Weese's 1961 Fichandler Stage and 1971 Kreeger Theater were worth preserving. But contemporary critics can only marvel at the bold way in which Thom solved a seemingly intractable problem: improve what he found, add new space, and stay rooted to the old address where M Street and Maine Avenue meet.

Thom was likely building on his experience with an earlier project, a shopping mall near Vancouver, to which he added a new, state-of-the-art university complex and office building. He is not afraid of keeping ugly things in or near his buildings, so long as he can create a whole that is superior to the parts.

To some, keeping the old theaters will seem like a fussy concession to orthodox preservation. To others, it will seem an act of generosity, environmentally sound in a larger, do-no-harm sort of way. And for skeptics, there is always time. Someday these buildings may be beautiful. Values always change.

Intellectually, it seems an easy thing to put the old theaters under glass. But the challenges were enormous. The existing theaters were once connected by a public space as enticing as the waiting room at the DMV. Now, they needed a new relationship. They had to coexist without seeming to crowd the enclosure, which also contains office space, state-of-the-art scenery and costume shops, public terraces and a third, entirely new theater. Arena also wanted swank new amenities, the bars and restaurants and mingling space that make a night at the theater reasonably civilized.

There were also technical details, of not much importance to casual visitors but vital to a theater company: How do you move sets into three theaters that are all contained within the same, Acropolis-like structure? And while a giant, encompassing roof solves many of the problems on paper, how do you build it? Something must support that roof, ideally without a forest of columns or other supports cluttering the interior.

The solution is both structurally and symbolically brilliant. The newest theater, called the Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle, ties everything together. With only 200 seats it is the smallest of the spaces, but it is also doing the most work. Inspired by the sculpture of Richard Serra -- his large, mysterious torquing metal ellipses -- the Cradle supports much of the roof. It balances the bland horizontality of the two existing theaters by rising above them, giving the entire building vertical energy and a centering, focusing nodal point. And it symbolically inverts the hierarchy of most theaters, making the "black box" space where new and experimental work is nurtured the most prominent architectural element of the building.

In a forthcoming book about his work, Thom writes, "We have been attracted to the Asian tradition of non-linear thought and holistic thinking rather than the more regimented logic of the Western intellectual tradition." And while skeptics who have heard similar declarations from a thousand fuzzy-thinking poseurs may wince at that, the truth of it is manifest in Arena's new home. The cradle, which is entered through a long, narrow, gently sloping semicircular passageway, creates an energy of contradiction and inwardness that does indeed balance the factory-like Weese theaters.

It gives an organic rather than geometrical perspective to what might otherwise be a disorienting feature of the building: the gently sloping floor of the main atrium space. Because the two existing theaters are entered from different levels, the new atrium splits the difference not with stairs but with a gentle curvature of the floor, as if you are standing on natural terrain rather than a man-made horizontal surface. The concrete curves of the Cradle, visible from inside and outside the building, are like a fundamental tone in music: a powerful, organic, non-linear ground that harmonizes all of the seeming oddities of the entire complex.

Thom also says that Vancouver has been a powerful influence on his architecture. Some of that influence is explicit in the new building, especially the huge columns made of super-strong wood composite that help support the roof. These 18 columns, rising up to 56 feet in the air and anchored at their base with a seductively pointed, heel-like metal fitting, each bear some 400,000 pounds of load, including the weight of the inclined glass curtain wall. It is the first use of this material in the United States, and the largest building in Washington to be supported substantially by wood.

Large wood elements, Thom says, are actually more fireproof than metal; they will char but won't burn through. More important, they have a definite flavor of the Northwestern forest: dark, cool, solid and refreshing.

The shape of the thin, ethereal roof, a gesture Thom has used in other buildings, may also be a Vancouver detail. "In Vancouver, where the earth is dark and the overcast sky is white with reflected light, you have to finish a building against the sky with stronger gestures, otherwise you can't clearly see where the building ends and the sky begins." In Washington, where building codes create a monotonous, low roofline, a strong gesture at the top of a building is also welcome, and Thom has provided one.

But it is the connection to the city that best defines the building. It has a processional drama that begins at the street, continues through the building and climaxes at an outside terrace with a grand view of the waterfront. It also has a surprising and almost sly view of the Washington Monument, a glimpse of the monumental Washington that connects Arena, and Southwest, to the larger city. Who knew that Southwest, this oft-neglected sliver of the city so brutalized by years of toxic urban renewal, was so close to the action?

And that's the point. Arena accomplishes everything that the silly, bombastic and obscenely expensive stadium built a few blocks away for the Nationals -- at more than 4 1/2 times the cost of the $135 million Arena Stage -- fails to do. Arena is authentically connected to the city. It isn't hemmed in by parking garages. It doesn't enclose visitors in a cocoon of the crassest commerce. It doesn't proffer false avatars of civic identity. The view of the Washington Monument from its terrace takes your breath away because it is subtle and sincere, a genuine civic gesture, not a decorative postcard view intended only as a backdrop for cocktail parties.

When a genuinely good building arrives in a city filled with so much generic architecture, it's worth considering all the might-have-beens. Arena Stage might have left Southwest for someplace where there are already crowds, restaurants and night life. It might have abandoned theaters that are now deemed ugly, but may be judged differently by posterity. It might have created a more modest, economical and traditional building. Instead, it built a building that rises to the first rank.

The building will also challenge Arena, and the city, in ways salutary to both. The city is still developing Southwest, and the presence of an important building there raises the stakes. There is now a new context for everything that happens near Arena, and the standard Washington mixed-use, glass-and-faux-stone box will not be a neighborly addition anywhere near the new theater. Arena is also committing itself to playing at a higher level. It now has a marquee home. It's time to do theater that matters.

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