News
03.07.2013
Cracking the Sarcophagus
Steven Holl takes a surgical approach to expand the Kennedy Center.
Courtesy Steven Holl Architects

Following last year’s National Mall Design Competition, which awarded plans to restore the ecology of the Mall and nestle a grass-roofed pavilion into its turf, landscape urbanism has chalked up another win in Washington.

This time, however, there’s a “starchitect” name attached, as well as $50 million in private money.

On January 29, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts announced that it had selected Steven Holl Architects to design a $100 million, 60,000-square-foot expansion, the first in the Center’s history. Holl’s initial concept calls for three pavilions set in public gardens that will slope down to the Potomac River. One pavilion will be a floating stage on the Potomac River, if Holl and the center secure approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The expansion spaces will connect with the main building underground, in an echo of Holl’s lauded 2007 addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.

New pavilions will be connected underground to the Kennedy Center.
 

The Kennedy Center’s board chair, David M. Rubenstein, has pledged $50 million toward the project, and the remaining funds will be raised from private donors. Holl and his team will spend the next several months finalizing the design, which will then need to be put through the lengthy federal approvals process. The center hopes to begin construction in 2016 and finish two years later.

At 1.5 million square feet, Edward Durell Stone’s 1971 building (famously dubbed a “marble sarcophagus” by Ada Louise Huxtable) wouldn’t seem to be short on space. However, the Kennedy Center puts on multiple performances every day in its seven theaters, hosting 3 million visitors each year. It also runs robust education and arts management programs. The expansion will provide much-needed rehearsal, classroom, and office areas.

“When the Kennedy Center was built in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, I don’t think they anticipated the growth of our education department,” said John Dow, a Kennedy Center spokesperson. For instance, Dow said, a huge upper-story room called the Atrium is now used for lectures and symposia, despite the fact that it is oversized for those events. “That room is being used for that purpose now. What it could be is maybe a place for exhibitions.” The expansion “will allow much more flexibility and many more options” for programming, Dow said.

The goal is to activate the public spaces around the arts complex.
 

One of the new pavilions will be used as a screen for simulcasts of performances inside the main building. The Kennedy Center wants “to engage better and longer with our audiences,” Dow said, by offering a place to relax in daytime hours and accommodating spillover crowds for popular events.

The gardens will connect with a riverside trail that leads to the National Mall, to the southeast, and Georgetown to the northwest. Holl’s proposal joins a crop of recent urban design schemes in Washington that embrace rather than ignore the Potomac River.

Yet the Kennedy Center is a trek from the Mall and Georgetown, and is marooned from downtown DC by a tangle of roads. Holl’s expansion won’t change that, as opposed to the more ambitious plans put forward by Rafael Viñoly a decade ago. Vinoly would have reconnected the center to downtown via an 11-acre plaza covering the freeway. That scheme, which relied on federal transportation funding, died in 2005.

Richard Longstreth, an architectural historian and longtime professor at George Washington University, said he welcomes Holl’s concept. “It helps the Kennedy Center be something other than the urban oaf that it is—not the institution, the building,” he said. “It’s a small gesture visually, in terms of what it accomplishes, but it’s very much a step in the right direction and will be a great asset.”

Amanda Kolson Hurley