For landscape architect Edmund Hollander, FASLA, the monumental form of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., which opened in 1971, evokes images of former First Lady “Mamie Eisenhower wearing pearls and a mink stole.” The towering white marble facades architect Edward Durell Stone created represent “architecture for the wealthy elite.”
That imposing building is now complemented by perhaps its opposite: a lyrical new extension, The Reach, which architect Steven Holl’s firm designed with Hollander after winning the competition for the project six years ago. Defined by its curving white titanium concrete walls and open lawns and gardens that also host performances and events, “it’s not for the elite; it’s for everyone.”
In a tour organized by the American Institute of Architect’s DC chapter, Chris McVoy, a senior partner at Steven Holl’s office, and Hollander, explained how the building and landscape were designed as one. “The experience is inside and outside simultaneously.” The buildings shape the landscape and vice versa; their forms riff off each other. “There is music, dance, theater in the building and the landscape,” Hollander added.
The Reach has seven entrances and five stairways, creating multiple ways to access the 10 interior stages, performance spaces, and practice areas, which are buried under sloping green roofs. McVoy and Hollander said the goals was to create a sense of “porosity” or openness to the surrounding landscape.
And indeed almost all the performance spaces within The Reach have massive windows that not only pour in light but provide views of the gardens and Potomac River beyond. McVoy said it has taken the opera and ballet performers some time to adjust to all the light, as they are used to practicing in black boxes. But they have taken to the windows that face into hallways and allow visitors to peer in. “Performers love to be seen.”
Steven Holl is from Seattle and is inspired by the Puget Sound, so all of his projects incorporate water in some form, Hollander said. As visitors descend the terraces into the landscape, either through steps or paths, or meander down the lawn through the buildings, they discover a fountain meant to be a “mirror to the sky” that also connects visitors to the experience of the river just below.
Hollander believes his role was to “help Steven Holl’s vision grow.” That vision was to use the landscape to create a “living memorial to Kennedy,” who was assassinated in 1963. Through seasonal change, the landscape itself gives a performance imbued with meaning.
For example, a grove of 35 prehistoric Gingkos trees — 35 because Kennedy was the 35th president — at the far end of the landscape turn a bright yellow in autumn and drop all their leaves at once around the time that Kennedy was assassinated.
Aside from that poetic arboreal piece, there are redbuds that burst out in spring; waist-high, immersive meadows of perennials, such as verbena, echinacea, rudbeckia and heptacodium that attract bees and butterflies in the summer; and red maples, gingkos, and sweetgums that overlay warm layers of color in the fall. The meadows are perhaps the most effective draw, pulling you into the landscape and out of the city. In the winter, the trees and grasses “keep their form.” Sprinkled throughout the gardens are works of public art.
To keep The Reach as accessible as possible, there are no obvious security elements. McVoy said the space is open to the public from 10AM to midnight year-round, and ample use of cameras means the security is largely invisible. “The goal is to make an open and inviting space that reflects Kennedy and his ideals.” Any issues identified by camera result in a drop-by from one of the Kennedy Center’s red jacketed ushers or the nearby patrols of the National Park Service and DC Metro police.
For Hollander, perhaps the toughest design and technical challenge was creating a lawn that essentially continued up one side of the main pavilion. As the “warped plane” becomes more vertical it turns into a sedum green wall that had to be carefully structured and planted. Creating an irrigation system that keeps both the upper and lower parts of the swoop well-hydrated year-round was challenging.
Hollander writes that “the irrigation system has an advanced web-based system with the ability to confirm water flow, water pressure, water temperature, ability to self-empty prior to frost, and refill right after temperatures warm up, so that the irrigation can effectively run 24/7, 365 days a year.” The swoop has been there about a year now and is “acclimating well.”
The team behind The Reach also addressed major connectivity issues as well. A much-needed pedestrian and bicycle connection between the upper levels of the Kennedy Center and the Potomac River below has finally been forged. Bicyclists can now wind through the new landscape and use the bridge to connect to Georgetown.
But there are few issues: the new bridge is perhaps too narrow, and there was an absence of bicycle parking anywhere in The Reach. I doubt the design team wants bicyclists locking their bikes to the beautifully-crafted handrails in the gardens, which is now happening.
To note: BNIM Architects partnered with Steven Holl Associates to design and build The Reach. And architecture firm KieranTimberlake is now working on a new master plan for the Edward Durrell Stone building that also seeks to make the now-dated center more open and democratic. This shift is already reflected in the new Kennedy Center logo, which adopts the curved forms of The Reach.