There are few architectural commissions as distinctly American, or as distinctly political, as a national presidential memorial in the nation’s capital—especially when that memorial is for a personal hero. Steven Holl, FAIA, vividly remembers watching John F. Kennedy’s inauguration when he was in junior high, and for him, the opportunity to design The Reach, a 72,000-square-foot expansion of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.—which serves not only as a dynamic arts institution, but also as a living memorial to the 35th U.S. president—offered “more than a challenge of architecture,” he says. “It’s a piece of our history.”
The original Kennedy Center was designed by Edward Durell Stone and opened in 1971. The height of New Formalism’s Cold War return to classical form and material, it rejected Modernism’s industrial steel and glass in favor of bronze and marble (albeit in the form of panels over a steel frame). But the building’s formality is not only found in its materials—the experience is one to match.
One does not walk into the Kennedy Center, one processes: From the vehicle drop-off in front of the massive blank façade, visitors move under a dramatically scaled colonnade, through one of two monumental passageways—the Hall of Nations and the Hall of States, both lined with plush red carpet and dozens of flags—and into the 60-foot-tall Grand Foyer, which runs the full breadth of the building. At 630 feet, that’s nearly three times longer than the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. The foyer then funnels people into one of six performance venues.
The only connection with the landscape is through glass doors at the entry and leading from the foyer onto a terrace that overlooks the Potomac River. If there is a feeling that the space evokes in visitors, it is that the space may be grand, but they themselves are all quite small and inconsequential. In political terms, the experience is less democratic than it is imperial.
If the original Kennedy Center is a monolith on a hill, The Reach is a series of pavilions in a garden. At first glance, as on approach from Stone’s terrace, the annex consists of just three cast-in-place, board-formed concrete shells—forming the Welcome, Skylight, and River pavilions—that curve up out of a lawn. The landscape and buildings are so inextricable that the lawn seems to climb the walls with sedum swoops, one of which achieves near verticality on the south wall of the Welcome Pavilion.
“This idea of the landscape turning up is where it started,” says Chris McVoy, design architect and partner-in-charge of the project. “It became a whole language of ruled surface geometries, some in landscape, some in white concrete, that echoes across curves to suggest a space.” As the pavilions curve toward and away from each other in order to carve out views—a notable sight line between the Welcome and Skylight pavilions to the southeast perfectly frames the Washington Monument—the effect is one of an architectural composition formed by intentional absence, rather than volume. “It’s a family of forms that are tied to one another,” design architect and project architect Garrick Ambrose says. “Each one is unique. They have their own personalities, but they all have the same origins.”
It is only when walking down the 4.6-acre slope and looking back, however, that the full scope of the expansion reveals itself: Glazed cuts in the hill offer views into multipurpose performance and rehearsal spaces, classrooms, and lounge areas beneath what turns out to be a 69,000-square-foot green roof. (A further 60,000 square feet of gardens and green space, like the green roof, developed with Hollander Design Landscape Architects, fill out the site, with benches and pathways.) This visual porosity—a direct contrast to Stone’s impermeability—is emphasized by at least eight fixed entrances (nine, if one counts the operable window wall connecting the River Pavilion with an adjacent terrace and reflecting pool). Visitors can come and go as they please, at various levels of the site—with or without a ticket to a performance.
What’s remarkable about this level of public access is that it almost didn’t happen: When it was initially commissioned, The Reach was intended to serve as much-needed rehearsal and back-of-house space, but was not intended to be open to visitors. The arrival of Kennedy Center president Deborah Rutter five years (almost to the day) before the building’s opening changed that. “One of the most well-known unfortunate aspects of the Kennedy Center is that we have these monumental marble walls, and when you walk into the building it’s as though there’s nothing happening here,” she says. “Everything already is private and off limits, so why are we creating more of that? We should be working hard to help share our art with more people—not hold them off and away from it.”
The combination of porosity and informality is part of an effort to democratize all varieties of the performing arts—and to make them more accessible to a broader, younger audience. The formal venues in the Stone building answer many of the Kennedy Center’s needs for large performances, but the facility lacked smaller and more informal venues. Only one theater in The Reach has raked seating, allowing the other five to be more flexible, and making them, in turn, suitable to many different types of performances—from hip-hop shows to dance. “When we were thinking about how to recognize Kennedy’s centennial, we focused on what he stood for—the ideals around service, courage, justice, freedom, and gratitude that work so well for us and for artists,” Rutter says. “The Reach empowers us to offer the kind of programmatic activity that can really explore this.”
The most democratic venue is not inside the building, but upon it: From the lawn, audiences can watch live or recorded video of performances projected onto the side of the Skylight Pavilion. “The idea you can have simulcast projection of the opera on the pavilion and people can see it for free is very democratic,” Holl says. “You can charge $500 a seat for those people in the black ties that go to the opera, but this way you can show the public the same event for free. To me, that’s what America is about, that’s what Kennedy was about, and that’s one of the parts of this project that I cherish.”
Another contrast with the Stone building is the experience of navigating The Reach at its much more human scale, moving through single-height passages between the pavilions and entering into light-filled double-height spaces within them. “It’s the idea of compression and release,” Holl says, “and that enhances the spatial feeling as you walk around the building. I think architecture is experienced by the human body moving through the spaces.” Despite the fact that so many of The Reach’s spaces are technically underground, nearly every space has access to natural light—via vision glass at ground level or translucent panes above. The framing of views continues deep into the complex as well, with windows in interior rooms that open into other spaces.
Inside the three pavilions, the curves of the structural shells respond to more than just visual aesthetics: While a layer of acoustical plaster over spray-applied insulation does line the surfaces, the geometries of the curves themselves are what tune the sound of the performance spaces. “We’ve just passed through a period in architecture of Postmodernism and then Deconstruction—neither of those movements paid any attention to structure. My argument is that in architecture, the basic fundamental structure is 20% to 25% of the cost of the building. It ought to play a main role in the meaning of the work.”
The Reach also needed to extend the center’s cultural mission as a living memorial to Kennedy. “It’s about the activities—they have 365 days of activities at the Kennedy Center which are open to the public,” Holl says. But the project acts as a living memorial in another way: “Our concept was to merge the architecture with the landscape,” he says. “Therefore, it’s living again—living on its landscape—and we opened that all out to bring it to the public.”
The Kennedy Center’s status as a memorial in Washington, D.C., means that it, like Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial or Henry Bacon’s Lincoln Memorial, embodies Americans’ collective cultural memory on a national stage. If Stone’s palatial Cold War fortress was representative of its time, Holl believes that the merging of landscape and architecture speaks to the current one. “One of the great things about the country we live in is the beautiful landscape,” he says. “It’s central to the American idea of inhabiting the land: The landscape is equal to the architecture.”
Despite the inherently political nature of a commission such as The Reach, Holl maintains that the politics of the day shouldn’t be the driving force behind design. “Our average building takes eight years from the first sketches until opening—this one took seven,” Holl says. “Society changes so many times that all you can hope to do is to raise a building to the ground of experience, of light, of space. Politics will come and go.”
As for how well The Reach will ultimately fulfill the mission to democratize the arts, Holl realizes that it’s out of his hands. But he hopes the message of access and integration resonates: “I’m excited about the architectural ideas, but there’s another layer of interest and importance. We all should recall how great President Kennedy was and what he had to say about who we are as a culture, who we are as Americans,” Holl says. “I think we all need to remember that. I think we are thirsty for positive dimensions, especially the young generations—they have to have something to be hopeful for.”
Project: The Reach, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C.
Client: John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Architect: Steven Holl Architects, New York . Steven Holl, FAIA (design architect); Chris McVoy (design architect, partner-in-charge); Garrick Ambrose (design architect, project architect); Magdalena Naydekova, AIA, (assistant project architect); Bell Ying Yi Cai, Kimberley Chew, AIA, J. Leehong Kim, Martin Kropac, Elise Riley, Yun Shi, Dominik Sigg, Jongseo Lee, Alfonso Simelio (project team)
Associate Architects: BNIM
Project Manager: Paratus Group
Construction Manager: The Whiting-Turner Contracting Co.
Structural Engineer: Silman
MEP Engineer: Arup
Civil Engineer: Langan Engineering & Environmental Services
Climate Engineer: Transsolar
Lighting Consultant: L’Observatoire International
Cost Estimator: Stuart Lynn Co.
Code Consultant: Protection Engineering Group
Façade Consultant: Thornton Tomasetti
Landscape Architect: Hollander Design Landscape Architects
Traffic/Parking: Gorove Slade Associates
Food Service Consultant: JGL Food Service Consultants
Regulatory Consultant: Stantec
Acoustic/AV/IT/Security Consultant: Harvey Marshall Berling Associates
Pre-Construction Manager: James G. Davis Construction Corp.
Vertical Transportation Consultant: Vertran
Concrete Consultant: Reg Hough Associates
Size: 72,000 square feet (building); 130,000 square feet (gardens/green space)
Cost: $175 million
For more images of The Reach, visit ARCHITECT's Project Gallery.