How the REACH was designed with community in mind

By WP BrandStudio

When the Kennedy Center set out to create a 21st-century expansion of its iconic performing arts venue, design presented both a challenge and an opportunity. The new complex would complement the existing, grand building and house new and approachable spaces to accommodate a diverse community.

“People want places to gather. With the REACH, we’re creating new opportunities for visitors of all ages and interests to engage with the nation’s cultural center”, said Ellery Brown, senior vice president of operations for the Kennedy Center.

This was the guiding principle behind the development of the REACH, designed by renowned architect Steven Holl as a complement to the original Kennedy Center (which was designed by another famed architect, Edward Durell Stone.) The expansion will be more than just a venue; when it opens in September, it will offer opportunities for artists and visitors to gather and feel part of the creative process. Together with the original building, its expansive grounds will let visitors curate their own experiences and expand what’s possible at the Kennedy Center, whether that means taking a creative workshop, watching artists rehearse or relaxing outdoors after a world-class performance.

Designed to bring people together

Walking into the REACH feels at once awe-inspiring and accessible. There are soaring ceilings, dramatic angles and light pouring in through large windows. But the open layout isn’t overwhelming—it offers a comforting sense of the spaces within. Having a panoramic view of the outdoors is pleasing on a biological level, according to Dak Kopec, associate professor in the School of Architecture at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. It relates back to our desire to have “prospect refuge,” or the ability to see our surroundings from a single safe area.

“With the heavy use of the indoor-outdoor connections, you’re capitalizing on that prospect,” he said.

Many of the features inside the REACH offer opportunities for enrichment, as well; cozy alcoves nestled in the building’s curved corridors allow for post-show discussions, and windowed rehearsal studios invite visitors to peek into the creative process. When audiences are offered this level of engagement, it can inform their ability to process what they’ve seen. According to Alan S. Brown and Rebecca Ratzkin, authors of the report “Making Sense of Audience Engagement,” conversation following a show or performance is critical to a viewer’s experience and overall understanding of the art they’ve consumed. The REACH’s active, engaging features, including the ability to mix a custom music track in the Moonshot Studio, tap directly into this post-processing time and allow people to reflect on the REACH’s more passive artistic experience, such as watching a performance.

The space’s design makes it possible for visitors to interact with artists, and also allows them to quietly take in nature and the building’s incredible architecture.

“That’s what we’re excited about,” Brown said. “[The REACH] carefully translates the grandeur of the 20th century into a more active, personal space for the 21st century.”

How to build a transformative community space at a legacy institution

While arts education has always been central to the Kennedy Center’s mission, the REACH now brings learning out into the open in collaborative settings. The floor-to-ceiling windows of the Moonshot Studio, for instance, give passersby a glimpse of students and summer campers at work. They might be learning about the science of sound after attending a National Symphony Orchestra performance, or they could be talking directly with resident artists in the halls.

And as a public space that’s free to visit year-round, the design benefits of the REACH extend to those who may not have a ticket to attend a show, too; the building’s outdoor video wall offers a gathering space to watch movies as well as performances happening live inside the building. The River Pavilion and café offer space for free open mic nights and casual performances. And public art, open lawns and quiet alcoves give visitors a reason to stop by simply to experience the space. This, according to Kopec, could be transformative for the community, as the space is redefining the kinds of experiences that can be had at the Kennedy Center—creating chances to experience art in both formal and informal settings.

“I don’t have to wear a tuxedo to [visit the Kennedy Center,] but I could still see an opera,” Kopec said.

By fostering relaxed, sociable experiences for visitors, the REACH is speaking directly to what many people want to get out of a performing arts center in this day and age. According to a study from Jonathan Gross and Stephanie Pitts of the University of Sheffield entitled “Understanding Audiences for the Contemporary Arts,” the “camaraderie” and social opportunity that surrounds a performance are now large reasons modern audiences choose to attend in the first place.

Whether visitors are searching for a classic, velvet-seated show or relaxed night watching the sunset and a film on the Center’s video wall, with the addition of the REACH, there’s something for everyone at the Kennedy Center.

“The design of the REACH will allow so many new and different ways to connect audiences with the artistic experience,” Brown said. “We’re not actually building  a theater; we’re building a creative commons.”

Learn more about the REACH, a 21st-century arts center where the performing arts are inclusive, accessible and interactive.

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How the Kennedy Center’s new expansion is making the arts accessible for an entire community

How the REACH makes the public a partner in the creative process