The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., has announced an opening date for the Reach, a new expansion designed by New York–based Steven Holl Architects (SHA). The 72,000-square-foot space—the first expansion since the center opened in its Edward Durrell Stone–designed building in 1971—will open to the public on Sept. 7, 2019.
Sitting just south of the original building, the Reach is composed of three curved concrete pavilions in a deceptive green landscape: Instead of being a garden at grade, the lawn is actually a green roof under which the three pavilions are connected by two stories of flexible rehearsal and education spaces that can also double as performance venues. That green roof will also host outdoor performances and activities, including simulcast projections of popular performances that will be projected onto a wall of the central pavilion. “This is very different in terms of the memorials in Washington, D.C.—the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson,” says Steven Holl, FAIA. “This is a living memorial, where activities are the primary goal and aim. So bringing people to the river edge, bringing them to the landscape, that's what it is all about. It's not an object. It's about shaping space”
The pavilions are made from board-formed concrete with an integral titanium white finish that will continue to brighten as it cures—a nod to the white marble of the existing structure. Inside, the pavilions feature large open spaces: "I never did like columns," Holl said on our construction site tour. Rehearsal and performance spaces are lined with a textured concrete, which the architects term “crinkle concrete,” instead of the traditional acoustic absorbing material. The textured surface is as deep as 8 inches in some places, Holl says, and was achieved using a rubber form liner. “It's the structural wall—there's no appliqué,” Holl says. “You can manipulate sound by geometry or material, and we worked with an acoustic engineer to develop this. This is a real work of integral architecture.” In addition to exposed concrete, the interior spaces will also feature millwork and furniture in American cherry “because I imagine JFK’s favorite rocking chair was made from American Cherry,” Holl says.
"Structurally, there are a lot of innovations in this building," SHA senior partner Chris McVoy, AIA, told us on the site tour. "Not only the white concrete with those crazy curves and swoops, but also the use of bubble deck slabs that reduce the weight of the concrete and enable use to have a very thin structure." A sawtooth profile to the bubble-deck also contributes to the acoustic performance of some of the spaces.
The openings in the structure will be enclosed with etched matte-white glass—some etched with quotes from President John F. Kennedy to echo quotes carved into the Durrell Stone building; clear panes will allow views out to the nearby Potomac River. Connecting the Kennedy Center to the river was a primary goal of the design of the Reach—in fact, the original competition-winning design saw one of the pavilions floating in the Potomac. “I started with the idea of floating a piece of the program in the river, but we had trouble with the Army Corps of Engineers and whatnot,” Holl says. “We had to move the River Pavilion on the ground, but actually, I am really glad it happened. You still get great views of the river, but now we can service it from below. It has a café, and you need to serve the food and bring the trash out. If I had it floating in the river, everything would have been going over a bridge. Not a functional idea. A nice, poetic idea, but not a functional one.” A pedestrian bridge will still connect visitors to the riverfront.
Another effect of the etched glass is that the pavilions will be filled with natural light—a hallmark of SHA’s work, but not necessarily of music spaces. “They're going to love it. I know that,” Holl says. “We did that at the Lewis Center for the Arts in Princeton, and the dancers love it. They say ‘Wow, it's like dancing in the clouds.’ ” But performers will have the opportunity to tune the light in the space how they wish. “They have the option to pull the curtains if they want darkness. They always have the option,” Holl says. “But I think natural light is a fundamental human need. It's not an artistic add on, its connected to our well-being. And I think the people who work in the original building are going to love to come and work in this.”