The Kennedy Center announced Tuesday that it plans to build a $100 million expansion to the nation’s busiest performing arts venue. Designed by American architect Steven Holl, the privately funded project would help connect the multitheater complex with Washington’s waterfront and includes public green spaces, a video projection wall for simulcast productions and a floating outdoor stage on the Potomac River.
The new plan, which pays tribute in its architectural detail to President John F. Kennedy, includes three pavilions to house classrooms, rehearsal facilities and multipurpose rooms for the center’s educational programs. The expansion, south of the 42-year-old complex, aims to solve some of the most pressing space constraints for a facility that hosts some 2,000 performances each year.
Kennedy Center Chairman David M. Rubenstein will donate $50 million to the project, the single largest gift in the institution’s history.
“He has funded programming in many ways,” said Michael M. Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center. “And now also a physical structure.”
The project is neither the loftiest nor the most expensive expansion by a Washington arts institution in recent years. The 200,000-square-foot renovation of Arena Stage, completed in 2010, carried a price tag of $135 million. Still, the expansion would serve a need that has dogged the Kennedy Center for over a decade: Its growing budget and programming necessitate physical growth.
The Kennedy Center brings in about 2 million people each year. An additional 1 million tour the complex annually. It serves the dual purposes of bustling arts center and memorial to Kennedy. And with the 2011 acquisition of the Washington National Opera, which rehearses in Takoma Park, and the growth of Kaiser’s DeVos Institute of Arts Management, classrooms and rehearsal spaces are needed more than ever.
“We run the largest arts education program in the country,” Kaiser said. “We work with 11 million children a year . . . but the building doesn’t have a classroom in it.”
“We don’t have rehearsal space of any consequence at the Kennedy Center,” Rubenstein echoed.
Holl, praised for his ability to blend existing buildings with contemporary structures, said the center’s proximity to the Potomac inspired his design and pays homage to Kennedy’s love of the sea.
“The overall concept was to fuse architecture and landscape,” Holl said. “Right from the beginning, I thought of the idea of getting down to the river, that this shouldn’t just be a pragmatic object added on to the existing Kennedy Center.”
The proposed design is relatively small — about 60,000 square feet of indoor space — compared with the existing 1.5 million-square-foot complex. The three pavilions would be connected by unobtrusive pathways or underground tunnels. The most ambitious structure is an outdoor stage that would float on the river, rising and falling with the tide. A second pavilion would provide a new entrance to the Kennedy Center on its south side for those arriving by bus or on foot, while the largest pavilion, named the “glissando,” after the rapid sweep of a musical scale, would contain classroom and rehearsal facilities.
The design emphasizes transparency: Many of the rehearsal rooms would have dramatic windows, allowing passersby to watch the artistic process, and one side of the largest structure would serve as the projection wall.
The expansion celebrates Kennedy’s service in the Navy. A famous Kennedy quote — “When we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch it, we are going back from whence we came” — would be sandblasted into the glass walls of the floating pavilion. Even the landscaping would bear witness to Kennedy’s life. Holl said that one of the reflecting pools in the green space would be the exact length and width of PT-109, the motor torpedo boat Kennedy commanded as a lieutenant during the World War II. The decking on the edge of the pool would be carved from the same kind of mahogany planks as the famous vessel.
Holl was inspired by Edward Durell Stone’s initial design for the Kennedy Center complex, which stretched over the Potomac before it was changed in the planning stages. Holl’s design could address the Kennedy Center’s isolated location by creating parklike public spaces connected to the Mall by existing running paths.
Holl was unanimously selected by an architecture committee that included Kennedy Center board members and staff. Two members of the Kennedy family, Jean Kennedy Smith and Victoria Reggie Kennedy, were part of the panel.
With Rubenstein’s $50 million gift, the center announced a $125 million capital campaign — $50 million for the remaining cost of the project and $25 million for future programming.
Rubenstein’s donation puts him in the company of philanthropists who have funded the renovation of performing arts centers since the economic downturn.
David H. Koch gave $100 million for the renovation of the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center in 2008, now named the David H. Koch Theater. Gilbert and Jaylee Mead gave $35 million to the Mead Center for American Theater at Arena Stage.
The proposed expansion will be Rubenstein’s largest gift to any single project. He is the largest donor to the Kennedy Center ever, having given $75 million since becoming chairman. Previous contributions have funded education, outreach and programming.
Rubenstein hopes his donation will encourage other philanthropists to engage in what he calls “patriotic philanthropy,” or giving to federally connected nonprofits in a time of austerity.
“The federal government today cannot afford to do many of the things it would have done before,” Rubenstein said of his donation. “I hope this will encourage other people to give to the Kennedy Center and other organizations that have been helpful to our country.”
Rubenstein, a co-founder of the Carlyle Group, a Washington-based private equity firm, has been chairman of the Kennedy Center since 2010. He is known for buying old documents of historical importance, which he lends to educational institutions or museums. In 2007, he purchased one of the 17 remaining copies of the 715-year-old Magna Carta, now on display in the National Archives. He also gave $4.5 million to the National Zoo for panda fertility research and $7.5 million to repair the Washington Monument after the 2011 earthquake.
In June 2012, Congress authorized the Kennedy Center to construct the expansion project with private funds. The project comes almost 10 years after the Kennedy Center announced plans for a $650 million pedestrian plaza that also would have included expanded rehearsal and classroom space. The plan was shelved after funding fell through. This project is expected to take five years. Steven Holl Architects is working on the final design, which will then be submitted to various planning agencies for approval. The process is expected to take up to three years, with construction finished two years later.
“We are taking some elements of the plaza project and embedding it into this one,” Kaiser said of the earlier plans, which included rehearsal space. “But we are only building on the south. There’s nothing that would preclude the [earlier] project.”
The expansion will occur during a period of transition for the Kennedy Center. Last week, it announced it would form a search committee for Kaiser’s successor. Kaiser will step down at the end of 2014 and hopes that the capital campaign will leave a nest egg for the new president. He said he is confident the center will reach its $125 million goal.
“Arts institutions do better when the vision is bigger,” Kaiser said. “When you are forward in your thinking and expansive in your vision, people want to support you.”
Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.