The Kennedy Center itself tells a particularly American story, one that reflects the triumphs and failures of the New Frontier and Great Society eras. The idea for a national performing-arts center was sparked back in the 1930s by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who conceived it as a stimulus project. For a time, beginning in 1950, the National Cultural Center was pitched as a memorial to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, one whose audience and performances would be integrated. That idea faltered; Stone was selected as the architect for the National Cultural Center after President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the 85th U.S. Congress gave the project a push in 1958. The National Cultural Center was subsequently transformed into the Kennedy Center five years later, following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
It was not always intended for its island in Foggy Bottom, set against the Potomac River, cut off from the rest of Washington by a system of lacing highways. But the Kennedy Center nevertheless bears the hallmarks of the approach to urban planning from that era. As early as the 1930s, architects and planners began to re-think the nation's capital. In one of the greatest urbanist-renewal schemes in the nation's history, architects Louis Justement, Chloethiel Woodard Smith, and other Modernists actually saw through an urbanist-renewal plan that stripped down most of Washington, D.C.'s historic Southwest quadrant, which had fallen on hard times (a scheme that I recounted in greater depth for the Washington City Paper). Superblock structures and rows of federal government buildings replaced Southwest's 19th-century rowhouses and churches. It was during this era, and in this quadrant, that a developer from New York City, who was working closely with I.M. Pei, planned to build a major cultural center to anchor the new development that would become L'Enfant Plaza. (A place Washingtonians dread today, and one federal authorities are working to transform.) Southwest was maybe the third or fourth location suggested for the Kennedy Center, and as with those other locations—Capitol Hill, Judicial Square—the project never made it to L'Enfant Plaza.
The Kennedy Center was never an engine of urban renewal in Southwest, whose dysfunctional legacy the capital is still working to overcome today. But the Kennedy Center's segregation from the rest of Washington is all too familiar, and is one of the reasons that the Kennedy Center building doesn't work as well as it should. It is a flaw that the planners have tried but failed to address as recently as a decade ago, as The Washington Post's Philip Kennicott recounts in a look at the new Steven Holl expansion:
Holl’s proposal, which would cost $100 million and add a modest 60,000 square feet of space, is small compared with a plan that was announced 10 years ago. In 2003, with the economy booming, the Kennedy Center dared to think big, hiring architect Rafael Viñoly to spearhead an ambitious $650 million, 400,000-square-foot plan to reconnect its isolated campus to the rest of Washington, with a deck built over nearby highway lanes, a long promenade extending E Street NW directly to the front of the arts center, and two new glass-and-steel buildings framing views of the center and adding much-needed rehearsal and office space. The center sought $400 million of federal funding for the effort, but by the summer of 2005, the hope of federal funding was dashed and the plan was shelved.
At a glance, the Holl's lighter expansion would still help the Kennedy Center to be less remote and imperious, connecting it with the waterfront along the Potomac River and adding to its program space. Kennicott describes Holl as: "a major architect with a record of designing elegant and harmonious additions to cultural facilities. Holl’s success in 2007 with a major expansion to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., bodes well for his ability to integrate new facilities into the Kennedy Center campus." (New York's Justin Davidson captured Holl's own very American story for this magazine back in May.) To the extent that he can address the Kennedy Center's oversights, Holl's expansion is bound to be a success. And there will still be word to do after the expansion's complete. The architecture's never been the problem. But the plan is a problem that keeps coming up again and again.