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Does the Kennedy Center have a vision for its elegant but awkward new annex?

Views of the Skylight and River pavilions on the grounds of the Reach, a new multiuse complex at the Kennedy Center. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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From a distance, the pavilions of the new Kennedy Center expansion look a bit like thick shavings taken from the bulk of the arts center’s old building. They are covered in gleaming white concrete, which reminds one of the Carrara marble cladding of Edward Durell Stone’s 1971 structure just across a plaza to the north. They are casually dispersed on a rounded-off triangle of land bounded by the Potomac River, I-66 and the on-ramp to the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge, turned at slight angles from the main building and smaller, but with enough presence that they don’t feel like miniature reiterations of Stone’s giant, monolithic box.

At night, they are even more intriguing, with translucent glass and external lighting that give them a sculptural quality, like the cogitations of a philosopher meditating on the idea of rectangles and curves and the difference between Platonic solids and non-Euclidean deviations. Designed by architect Steven Holl, they repeat a gesture he has used successfully before, notably in Kansas City, where he added an interconnected set of luminous pavilions to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. But the $250 million Kennedy Center expansion, confined to a small and uncongenial urban footprint, was a significantly more challenging project. The architect has managed to shoehorn some 72,000 square feet of new space, including 10 multiuse rooms, an appealing central atrium, access for trucks and buses, and an open performance plaza with a video wall, into about five acres that were hitherto an afterthought and often a parking lot.

Much of this space is underground, several of the rooms face directly onto the Potomac River and the whole of the new project is nestled into a grassy landscape, which is said to be the largest “green roof” in Washington. While the Stone building sits atop the landscape, with large terraces floating above the earth, the Holl addition, with landscape design by Hollander Design Landscape Architects, is burrowed into it, connecting to the city’s primary geographic feature.

The new structures, dubbed the Reach, show no overt disrespect to their monumental neighbor, but they do just about everything differently. The Stone building compels one to move in straight lines, down the two main axes of its entry halls or along the giant atrium space that connects its three main theaters. The internal spaces of the Reach have no clear geometry, but lots of appealing oddities, gentle angles, curious notches and walls that arc up gently from the ground. Entrance to the performance venues of the old building are regulated and carefully demarcated: You go up a few stairs, present your ticket to gain entrance to the outer lobby and only then are admitted to the sacred space. Some of the rooms in the Reach have glass walls and large, swinging doors that create a welcoming breach in the defensive perimeter.

So the Kennedy Center is catching up, architecturally, with the fashions of the day. Originally intended as a home for an arts management institute that eventually moved to the campus of the University of Maryland, the space that is now the Reach is part of a larger rebranding of the Kennedy Center, as a more contemporary, socially attuned institution, less focused on the arts that were its original raison d’etre: opera, symphonic music, dance and theater. The 16-day opening festival, which begins on Sept. 7, will feature jazz, hip-hop, electronica, comedy, family events, lectures, discussions and community events. After the festival ends, the larger purpose of the Reach is more vague and has been articulated in the bromides of arts-management dogma: It is about “breaking down the boundaries between audience and art” and offering “multidimensional access points for the widest possible community.”

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It’s not that these are bad ideas, or shouldn’t be the central purpose of every arts organization. Rather, they are the kind of prefabricated, overused phrases that suggest merely conventional thinking, as if the Kennedy Center hopes that through careful repositioning, slick labels and aesthetic differentiation from its old building it will somehow emerge an organization transformed. That is wishful thinking.

Throughout the process of creating the Reach, there have been some troubling compromises and developments. Some were unavoidable, including changes to the River Pavilion, which was originally meant to float in the Potomac, but for regulatory reasons had to be moved on land. And some were pragmatic, including the use of marble cladding, which is now limited to the wall where the donor’s names are listed, a perhaps unintentional symbolic exclamation point on one of the unchanging verities of arts funding: Rich people matter more than everyone else.

Others are more about vision and priorities. Although a new pedestrian bridge over Rock Creek Parkway creates a welcome connection to the adjacent bicycle and footpath, there is still no serious effort to address the center’s main weakness, which is its isolation from the street life of Washington. Even with its elegant expansion, the campus will be cut off from a newly vibrant city by the mess of Interstate 66. The rusting hulk of the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge sullies the fine new views from the Reach and the noise from its traffic will plague events on the outdoor plaza. This concrete excrescence, remnant of a barbaric plan to encase the city in freeways, isn’t necessary and could be scrubbed off the landscape with a little bit of enlightened leadership.

Second, the old building is sorely in need of basic improvements. These include an acoustical renovation of the concert hall, redesign of the Soviet decorative scheme and serious attention to the amenities available to concertgoers, especially the dreadful food and dispiriting beverages available within the building during intermission.

One seemingly small detail also suggests possible troubles ahead. You cannot actually see the Reach from inside the Kennedy Center, but must walk out onto the River Terrace and along a covered path to access it. This lack of visual connection is the result of an overzealous defense of the old building’s historical fabric, but it makes no sense to add an annex that lacks an obvious visual invitation from the main building. And while the two buildings are connected below ground, there is enough distance between them that it isn’t clear that audience members will be able to wander over to the Reach during intermission. The new cafe, which will be the most desirable new amenity if it is managed, as the center recently announced, by Erik Bruner-Yang and Eric Hilton, is in the pavilion farthest from the main building.

Does this awkward physical connection presage larger institutional uncertainty about the relationship between the two spaces? Will the Reach be an independent institution, serving a different audience, while the main building caters to a neglected and dwindling old guard? During early tours of the Reach, Kennedy Center leaders stressed its informal, behind-the-scenes possibilities, pointing out open seating areas with good light and inviting ambiance that they hope will become catalysts for “creativity.” Here, they said, members of the community can hang out with Kennedy Center notables such as soprano Renée Fleming and rapper and producer Q-Tip as they incubate new ideas, while across the hall they will be able to sit and listen to rehearsals in progress.

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Skepticism is in order. The National Symphony will continue to rehearse mainly in the Concert Hall while the opera will maintain its rehearsal space off campus. And I don’t think you will often chance upon Fleming and Q-Tip kibitzing over coffee in the lounge between the dance studios and the classrooms, unless the event has been placed on both of their agendas months in advance.

These are doubts about the center’s artistic planning, not dings to the building’s architectural merits, which are substantial. The new lecture hall, with its crinkle concrete walls (an acoustical detail that is lovely to look at) and warm wood, is an inviting space, and if programmed with substantial arts content will be a welcome addition to the larger Kennedy Center. The educational spaces, some of them with good views of the river, will expand the center’s potential impact on young audiences. And maybe there really will be live rehearsals with crowds of eager people pressed to the windows, if the center can prevail upon its visiting artists to do what no artist should be compelled to do: warm up, make mistakes and revise things in public.

When the Kennedy Center was built, it was designed to fulfill a specific sets of needs and functions. Now it has been expanded to enfold an unknown number of new functions and needs, in spaces that are flexible and multipurpose. On any given evening, the old building hums with activity, despite its dated interiors and problematic furnishings. In five years, let’s put the new building to the same test. If the majority of its new spaces are active and throwing off sparks, it will be a success. If not, the problem will almost certainly be a lack of institutional foresight rather than architectural planning.

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