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Kennedy Center and others should take note of Lincoln Center redesign

Lincoln Center has a new look, part of a $1.2 billion transformation that began in 2006.

That kind of eccentricity could happily be applied to the Kennedy Center, which is surrounded by sterile, empty plazas and access roads. It also stands in sharp contrast to Washington thinking, where public space is viewed as a problem - how does one police it? - not an invitation. Security fears have led to major incursions on public space, loss of beloved vistas such as the West Terrace of the Capitol, and the decommissioning of ceremonial stairways and front entrances (as at the Supreme Court).

Public land, which might be left to the public to define and animate, is taken away for unnecessary symbolic purposes, such as the loss of playing fields and open grass that will result if the ill-advised Vietnam Veterans Memorial visitor center goes forward. Even where spaces remain open, bollards send a symbolic disinvitation, and rude security guards have become pervasive and endemic.

The arts, throughout America, remain blissfully unsecured. The bag check at Washington museums is perhaps the most perfunctory of any program to secure public buildings in the city. At the Kennedy Center it is nonexistent most nights of the year. In a larger sense, the arts, like the architects at Lincoln Center, stress a set of values that are the opposite of the security mindset. The arts are about access, exposure, serendipity and commingling.

Transparency and flow are the architectural ideal for most arts institutions: The most striking features of the new Arena Stage facility on the Southwest waterfront are its giant walls of glass and its flowing atrium that ideally should allow visitors to pass straight through the building. Even one thing criticized about the Lincoln Center redesign - changes to the landscaping of the north plaza by famed landscape architect Dan Kiley - all serve to make it a better public space. It offers more places to sit, better shade - and the Henry Moore sculpture, which sits in a somewhat shrunken version of the old reflecting pool, now feels closer and more accessible.

It has been a remarkable evolution. The arts, according to outdated stereotypes, are rule-bound and hierarchical, enamored of imposing facades of cold stone, and closed off from the rabble and hoi polloi. The striking thing about the changes that Diller Scofidio + Renfro have made at Lincoln Center is that they coexist with an architectural style - the giant columns of Philip Johnson's New York State Theater, the colossal arches of Wallace Harrison's Metropolitan Opera - that defined those old and worn cliches.

Rather than subvert or sabotage or demolish the old monumentality, the architects have simply added to it, a few wry gestures, a wink, a gentle touch on the shoulder. And suddenly the stone campus isn't just friendlier, it seems to embody an ideal the very opposite of the worst and most debilitating tendencies of the other great architectural engine today: the relentless drive to secure public space.

It's not just the Kennedy Center that should take a lesson. The whole of Washington, with its fear peddlers, rule givers, bag checkers, body scanners and barking security guards, needs to take note.


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