America’s aesthetically conservative capital occasionally receives a design jolt thanks to a unique new building. Washington, D.C.’s latest architectural shot in the arm, the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, is a radical transformation by Bing Thom, AIA, of one of the city’s most venerable cultural institutions. Filling a tight, triangular parcel overlooking southwest D.C.’s Potomac River waterfront, the Mead Center’s dramatic sculptural qualities are rational and purposeful, not arbitrary or whimsical. Its provocative, idiosyncratic form, housing an equally idiosyncratic program, works well in functional, aesthetic, and urbanistic terms.
Some question the Mead Center’s fit within southwest D.C.’s urban context, since the new structure doesn’t emulate surrounding buildings. It doesn’t because it shouldn’t. Most nearby buildings are stylistically eclectic, diverse in scale and function, and architecturally unremarkable. The neighborhood is in flux and will look very different in another decade. On the adjacent waterfront, obsolete 1960s-vintage, low-rise commercial buildings and parking lots soon will be replaced by multistory, mixed-use development. Other redevelopment projects in the area are under way or planned. Indeed, the Mead Center is spurring local revitalization. Equally important, it is both a civic edifice for the city and a cultural resource for the nation. Standing boldly apart as charismatic architecture is altogether fitting.
Appreciating this innovative makeover requires knowing a bit of Arena’s history. Sitting at the intersection of Maine Avenue and 6th Street SW, Arena Stage was originally a freestanding, 800-seat, in-the-round theater designed in the late 1950s by Harry Weese. Square in plan with chamfered corners, the theater became a well-known example of midcentury modern D.C. architecture: exposed concrete structure, brick cladding, hipped metal roof. Rising in 1971 was a sister theater, the Weese-designed, 514-seat Kreeger, which is fan-shaped, with a proscenium stage. For decades loyal patrons filled the theaters, despite painfully small lobbies, outmoded technical systems, and woefully inadequate back-of-house facilities. Something needed to happen.
According to Arena’s artistic director, Molly Smith, what happened was a “thrilling adventure” that entailed reconceiving Arena’s mission, coping with challenging site and design issues, and raising $135 million. Moving beyond its role as a regional theater, Arena Stage was to become a “national center” for American theater, says Smith. In addition to showcasing local and traveling works, it would foster the development of new productions and serve as a facility for the study of American theater history. But expanding aspirations required programmatic and spatial expansion. Because of the small, oddly shaped site, Arena considered other locations. But recognizing that its property was in a changing neighborhood close to a Metro station, and that the site constituted part of Arena’s historic image and identity, the board decided to stay put. It also decided to save and modernize the existing theaters.
For Bing Thom Architects (BTA) in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, fulfilling the center’s mission architecturally required accommodating the entire 200,000-square-foot program on the site. Everything existing was to be demolished except for the Arena Stage building—renamed the Fichandler Stage, to honor its founder—and the Kreeger Theater. A new 200-seat experimental theater, the Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle, was to be added. Totally new back-of-house facilities and commodious public spaces were needed. Although the 1,397 seats in today’s three theaters roughly match the number in the two original theaters (200 Arena box seats were eliminated), supporting three performance venues instead of two necessitated augmented, state-of-the-art production and operational capabilities.
Two design options were possible: Create a village of densely aggregated, disparate new and existing structures interconnected by public and back-of-house circulation networks, or envelop new and existing structures within a unifying form. BTA chose the latter, using a singular heroic gesture: a curving, 475-foot-long cantilevered roof sweeping horizontally across the site. The sinuous roof’s acutely angled, dramatically projecting tip at the site’s west end points toward the Washington Monument. Lacking preconceived stylistic intentions, the gesture is at once symbolic and practical, born of site and program conditions, the kind of big aesthetic move that Eero Saarinen might have made.
The roof gesture is amplified by the undulating, floor-to-ceiling glass curtainwall, tilted slightly outward, wrapping around the street façades and beautifully revealing the center’s design. Braced by Parallam, engineered-wood muntins, and struts, the curtainwall’s 370 glass panels hang from the roof yet make the roof, framed with deep steel trusses, seem to float. The steel roof structure rests on 18 elliptical Parallam columns, to which curtainwall struts attach. According to Thom, this glass-wood-steel construction assembly is unprecedented in the U.S. The glazing exposes the center’s interior architecture and movement of people and sets, while those inside enjoy panoramic views of the city, the river, and sunsets illuminating the western sky. At night, the building is at its artful best, radiantly aglow with light.
Abstract concrete forms emerge and project outward at the site’s western vertex and eastern edge. Near the main entry on 6th Street, for instance, an oval concrete cylinder rises from sidewalk level to above roof height and contains the Kogod Cradle and the spiraling ramps that lead around and into the theater. The cylinder and the other masses succeed as aesthetic anchors and visual counterpoints to the building’s dominant roof and glass curtainwall expression. The center’s expressive character is enhanced by consistent details and materials carried from exterior to interior, where one sees concrete floors with a terrazzolike finish in public spaces, and concrete, glass, wood, and metal on wall surfaces and guardrails.
Roger K. Lewis, FAIA, is a professor emeritus at the University of Maryland School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation, and a columnist for The Washington Post.
The center’s fluid public realm is a dynamic place to see and to be seen. All of the free-plan space around and between the theaters, including the elevated café terrace atop the Kreeger, is sheltered below the sweeping span of the new roof. Viewed from the café terrace, however, the space between the Fichandler roof and the new roof above feels overly compressed. Thom acknowledges that, budget permitting, he would have preferred a higher roof to give Weese’s building a bit more breathing room. Nevertheless, the spatially and volumetrically layered interior, coupled with views outside, provides rich visual complexity yet does not impede orientation or navigation.
Rehearsal spaces, classrooms, administrative offices, prop storage, and other staff spaces, including a publicly visible lounge, occupy the site’s northern edge, with parking below. BTA’s deployment of these critical facilities enables efficient movement and interaction of staff, actors, and materials. Acoustic design, likewise a critical priority, ensures that no noise or vibrations enter the theaters. The Kogod’s floor sits on isolation mounts, and mechanical equipment is located in a soundproofed basement.
The center and its designers earn points for reusing an urban property that is well served by city infrastructure and transit, and for keeping all of the center’s functions concentrated on the site. They also saved the two theater buildings that embody energy and resources previously invested, harvested and poured daylight deep into the building, and engineered efficient HVAC and chemical-free water-treatment systems.
The Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater is an iconic, purposeful building. Bing Thom has substantially raised the bar for architectural design quality in the nation’s capital.