Wrapped in a solemn cloak of white precast panels, the newly opened Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate presents a commanding face. With clean lines and smooth surfaces, the new museum serves to advance the Senate while memorializing one of the body’s most prominent firebrands. The low-slung structure contrasts with the towering forms of I.M. Pei’s adjacent presidential library for John F. Kennedy while maintaining a constant aesthetic dialogue. The architects at Rafael Viñoly planned it that way.
“We looked to the I.M. Pei building in terms of the character and scale, materials, and geometry of the EMK Institute,” David Rolland, partner at Rafael Viñoly Architects, told AN. “In that regard, we were both inspired by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library but also felt we could make something that was unique and yet had a connection with it.”
Care was taken to align the building’s massing and height with the presidential library. “Like the JFK presidential library, the forms are very platonic shapes, and they are situated and arranged abstractly,” said Rolland. Two flanking arms—set at 45 degrees mirroring the alignment of the adjacent library—give shape to the building’s forecourt, rising starkly from a plane of grass. A raised “bridge” traverses the lawn, lined with 50 bollards, each inscribed with the name of a state and ordered in sequence of when it joined the union.
At the center of the Institute, a monolith projects up from the roof indicating the location of a replica of the U.S. Senate Chamber inside. The mass is clad in dark composite metal panels with tight joints so it appears as a single mass. That dark tone is reflected inside by a black stone wall that surrounds the chamber. “As you first enter the building, you come through the forecourt across a bridge and then enter through a large glass vestibule, with almost no metal. It’s just sheets of insulated glass,” said Rolland. “There is a gradation from the white on the outside into that darker form of the Senate chamber.”
The Senate chamber is a nearly exact replica, updated to fit modern accessibility codes, where visitors will experience simulated legislative sessions. “The space feels extraordinarily authentic,” said Rolland. “The doors you enter through are pairs of two-foot-wide doors. There’s something very unique about that process of opening two doors to enter a space. It’s not the way we’re used to entering buildings.”
Surrounding the chamber, a square ring of flexible space can accept events and exhibitions. “The exhibit space is all digital,” said Rolland, a move designed to engage with a younger audience. Three hundred feet of linear projections can be switched off to create a blank slate for events. “The space itself is completely flexible in the regard that it’s an empty hall and it’s the projection itself that brings life to it,” he added.
Finally, an outer ring contains classrooms and administrative space with a replica of Kennedy’s Senate office in the northeast corner. “Everything that was in the original office came over,” said Rolland. “Including the tennis ball that was under the desk for the dogs. The artwork, the photographs, the model ships on the fireplace mantelpiece.”
“There was a great deal of attention paid to help foster the institute’s mission of teaching civics and the legislative process in a non-partisan manner,” said Rolland. “We wanted to make sure the architecture was reflective of that.”