Architect Bing Thom’s new Arena Stage at the Mead Center for the American Theater in Washington, D.C. may be the pinnacle of biophilic design with its use of sensuous and tactile natural materials, access to sunlight, and natural ventilation systems. Biophilia, as defined by famed biologist E.O. Wilson, is “the innate emotional affiliation of human beings with other living organisms.” (see earlier post). When applied to buildings, biophilic design actually goes beyond functional environmental sustainability and harnesses natural elements to create wellbeing (see earlier post).
The building makes a bold statement in its Southwest D.C. neighborhood, an area once ridden with crime but now coming back in part due to institutions like the Arena Stage. Managing director Edgar Dobie said theater companies “need to have a pioneering spirit” in order to help rebuild damaged communities. Arena Stage was the first desegregated theater group in the country and also had some of the first desegregated audiences. Now fifty years later, the new $135 million space, which took some ten years to finish, provides a “utopia” for the neighborhood, but its programs are still deeply connected with the local middle school and community groups. Local residents get discounted tickets.
By design, the community is physically connected in with the building. Arena Stage was comprised of two smaller theaters that looked away from each other along the D.C. waterfront. Instead of pulling them down to create something new, Thom placed a towering cantilevered roof over them that feels like a tree canopy, and added the new Kogod Cradle studio theater. The three theaters now face each other, creating “three jewels in a jewel box.” The interior space connecting them creates a rich public flow-through, which was designed to “create collisions” among the audience, actors, and administrative workers.
The interior promenade allows theatre-goers to recover from the “intense experience” of the live performances. “They can take a break during intermission by exploring the spaces,” said Thom. However, Molly Smith, artistic director at Arena Stage, instead thinks the new spaces actually reinforce the intensity of the performances. “The new building proclaims the sensuality of live theater.” She added that “theater should be sexy. It’s about the human body. So many buildings in D.C. are so square.”
The sense of being in a forest is also enhanced by a set of 44 to 55-feet-tall tree-like pillars throughout the building made of Parallam, an engineered wood product consisting of 95 percent recycled douglas fir and cedar wood chips. These pillars, while biophilic design elements in themselves, are there to hold up the massive glass walls — each bears 400,000 pounds of weight.
A love of nature is found in these pillars, but also in smaller details like smooth wood hand rails and rough concrete walls that are fun to touch. Thom said: “These small elements are how the designer shakes hands with the visitors. The tactile element is very important. These are things people lose sight of in the computer age.” Thom’s wife’s rich carpets, which Smith said “bring the fire to the building and give it energy,” create another tactile element and include overlaid drawings of the building. Almost all of the new building is made up of recycled or reused materials.
The subtle landscape architecture, designed by Chris Phillips, ASLA, of Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg, helps integrate the building into the community — a number of access points enable easy entry and flow-through the public spaces in the interior. Trees on site were saved, said Thom, and a few oaks replanted. There are also plazas where outdoor studio work can occur. Unfortunately, though, one of the more ambitious landscape architecture ideas — to create a running river around the building to mirror the Washington Channel — was cut because $20 million needed to be removed from the budget.
Image credit: Nic Lehoux, courtesy Bing Thom Architects.