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Kennedy Center addition tries to connect with the audience

The Kennedy Center yesterday unveiled an expansion plan to build 3 new pavilions, including one in the Potomac River, along with pedestrian bridges across Rock Creek Parkway and to the east. The project would partly alleviate some of the Kennedy Center's 1960s urban design errors.

Rendering from Roosevelt Island

It connects the 1.5 million-square-foot arts center to the river, as its designers originally imagined, and as many have proposed since. The addition will principally house the center's extensive music education classes, although it includes rehearsal space and some smaller performing spaces.

Designed by the office of New York architect Steven Holl, the $100 million plan consists of 3 pavilions. Two rest on top of a 3-story plinth, and the other one sits on a floating platform in the Potomac. Bridges will span Rock Creek Parkway to connect the landside and riverside sections, finally connecting the massive balcony of the Kennedy Center to the ground.

Overhead view showing the three pavilions on a low plinth. Image from Steven Holl Architects.

The plinth is the key to the project, allowing the architects to connect the addition to the new building without degrading Edward Durell Stone's marble box. Holl used a similar scheme to add a large addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City. Blending this plinth into the onramps of the Roosevelt Bridge creates the appearance that it is part of the landscape, with small objects on top of it. The plinth is stepped down on the land side, to let light in to the rehearsal spaces and create privacy amid the highway mess.

Down the ramps, the riverside pavilion will house a stage for small performances. Located right on the Rock Creek multi-use trail, it would break up a loud, boring stretch of the trail. Passers-by might find a show to linger at. Parents could bring kids to music classes by bike, then enjoy time to themselves without getting back into cars. Importantly, it connects the project to the Georgetown waterfront, meaning that a night at the opera might be more pedestrian.

It does not, by any means, eliminate the Kennedy Center's isolation, which comes from the I-66 spur that cuts a deadening trench into Foggy Bottom. However, lightly noted in one of Holl's watercolors is a pedestrian bridge to an unspecified destination. This might be the missing piece that would make the expense worth it.

Such a bridge would make the Kennedy Center accessible by foot from both sides. But it would have to be executed as well as the river-side connectors. If the bridge is not kept busy with activity somehow, like the floating pavilion does, it will not be well-used.

Rafael Viñoly's plan to create a public square was cancelled in 2005. Courtesy Rafael Viñoly Architects.

The plan is considerably more modest than the previous expansion plan by Rafael Viñoly, which would have cost $650 million but patched together the urban fabric on E Street. Although this plan does not preclude that more ambitious project in the future, it fulfills some of aims of that design.

Therefore, this plan also opens the site up to more audacious rethinking of the Center's location in the city. For example, replacing the highway to nowhere with a high-capacity boulevard and filling in blocks recovered from the project would reduce the need for a multi-million dollar deck and expensive structural systems.

This new building looks to positively alter the riverbank, aesthetically and functionally. It is a positive step forward that avoids the pitfalls of a grandiose scheme. However Holl's design evolves, by the intended completion in 2018, could be the first phase of rethinking Foggy Bottom as a more human-scale environment and reconnecting DC's arts center to the rest of the city.

Neil Flanagan grew up in Ward 3 before graduating from the Yale School of Architecture. He is pursuing an architecture license. He really likes walking around and looking at stuff.  


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While I strongly agree in principle that the I-66 spur is an aesthetic disaster, it's also not a highway to nowhere. I and many other people that reverse commute from DC to Northern Virginia use it every day. Granted, it's far too big for the level of traffic it gets and should be totally redone to integrate the Kennedy Center with the rest of the city, but don't underestimate its usefulness for some people.

by rowsdower on Jan 30, 2013 10:57 am • linkreport

Edward Durell Stone's initial concept for the Kennedy Center engaged the river in a rather grand manner.

by Braulio on Jan 30, 2013 10:59 am • linkreport

I was hoping they would incorporate a ferry terminal in their plans to address the river. I suppose if money can be found to deck over the 395 trench, sooner or later they'll get to the 66 spaghetti.

by Steve S. on Jan 30, 2013 10:59 am • linkreport

It's an interesting idea, but any outdoor pavilions/stages are doomed from the outset by the building's neighbors: the heavy highway-speed traffic on the Roosevelt Bridge and Rock Creek Parkway, and the frequent airplane/helicopter traffic from Reagan Nat'l and Bohling Air Force p Base render the area useless for outdoor performances. The bands for the armed services used to give concerts from a barge on the Potomac to people gathered on the steps leading from the Lincoln Memorial to the Potomac River in decades past, but these concerts were moved to the grounds of the Capitol for exactly the same reason.

I encourage the Kennedy Center to develop the underused land in between the Roosevelt Bridge and their building, but outdoor performance spaces are a poor choice with so much auto and air traffic.

by Adam on Jan 30, 2013 11:03 am • linkreport

Okay, I'll bite. Is the new interior space in the plinth? I'm not seeing any appreciable expansion of the building's usable space in the renderings.

(And, ick, if they want to put classrooms etc underground)

by andrew on Jan 30, 2013 11:08 am • linkreport

Andrew: the proposed addition only adds about 60,000 sf of space. So, yes, it is a relatively small addition.

As far as the underground part goes, I would tend to agree. However, having been to Holl's addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, he's shown how you can make those underground spaces open and inviting. The museum's underground spaces are remarkably well-lit with natural light diffused from translucent but not transparent glass blocks. Aboveground, the glass blocks dot the landscape as if they were additions to the musuem's sculpture gardens and grounds.

by Alex B. on Jan 30, 2013 11:14 am • linkreport

This stretch of trail is admittedly loud...but is it boring? Perhaps I'm missing something. Or too easily impressed with remarkable (even "as is") architecture, history, foliage & river vistas.

Still, these improvements look promising. Thanks for the summary.

by JFMAMJJASON on Jan 30, 2013 11:14 am • linkreport

There are some interesting ideas here - I agree with the need for a ferry terminal, too. But to me, at any rate, the Kennedy Center's troubles go beyond what's addressed here.

Parking, for one: it's absurdly expensive given the cost of tickets (it's possible to pay more for parking than for a ticket to a lot of shows). It needs to be kept, because too many people are coming from beyond the reach of public transit. And if they expand capacity of the space they'll need to expand the garages, at least short-term.

Public transit: the shuttle service is decent, but there's so many variables that I don't like using it. Traffic, usually - if it's really bad I get concerned about missing my curtain, sometimes. I wonder if it would be possible to put a new station by the Center if there's any sort of Blue Line redesign? Probably not, but still.

Food: attending a performance is more than just a cultural event. When I go with friends, I like to eat out beforehand, ease into the evening. There aren't many viable options around there, though I understand it's changing as you get to Foggy Bottom station.

This is an...interesting start. But the space won't come close to maximum potential until a.) the roads are decked over, and b.) some kind of business is allowed to creep in more closely. Perhaps some along the waterfront, too?

by Ser Amantio di Nicolao on Jan 30, 2013 11:15 am • linkreport

I feel like that area is a lost cause until they address the disaster of 66 and its interchanges. Then again I would guess that the average person who goes to the Kennedy Center with any frequency doesn't mind it being only auto accessible.

by Alan B. on Jan 30, 2013 11:16 am • linkreport

One potentially nice thing about this is that the walkways down to the floating stage, if done right, provide a potential connection between the Rock Creek Parkway trail and the Kennedy Center. This addition would also make the Kennedy Center bikeshare station (and the trail over the Roosevelt bridge) more accessible to pedestrian and bike traffic coming from Georgetown, downtown, SW waterfront, or Woodley Park.

by Jacques on Jan 30, 2013 11:26 am • linkreport

@Alan B.: Then again I would guess that the average person who goes to the Kennedy Center with any frequency doesn't mind it being only auto accessible.

That's precisely the problem. It needs to be made far MORE accessible to people who don't drive. Even to those who do; I was there Saturday and getting into parking was an almost-unmitigated disaster. We allowed plenty of time; I hate to think what would have happened had we NOT.

by Ser Amantio di Nicolao on Jan 30, 2013 11:35 am • linkreport

the highway to nowhere

While, Front Royal is a small town, the Capital of the United States certainly is not nowhere. Neither are GW and the State Dept. They are massive employment centers.

by Jasper on Jan 30, 2013 11:54 am • linkreport

The Kennedy Center is a 10 minute walk from the Foggy Bottom metro station. How is that not transit accessible?

by bone on Jan 30, 2013 11:59 am • linkreport

@bone Have you ever made that walk? It's quite unpleasant, and I wasn't the one in heels...

by Tim Krepp on Jan 30, 2013 12:07 pm • linkreport


Crossing Virginia Avenue is unpleasant.

The shuttle becomes badly overcrowded after performances, too.

I would much prefer to take Metro than pay $22 to park.

by Jim on Jan 30, 2013 12:09 pm • linkreport


I get that folks use the 66 spur to VA and back again, but how many of those lanes are really used every day? It's not a freeway, after all, but a freeway spur to enter a freeway that essentially starts at the foot of the bridge. Removing the spur could be done without hurting commuters, and in doing so, would fully reintegrate not only the Kennedy Center, but also the Watergate and the land on the Potomac out to the Lincoln Memorial.

by Circle Thomas on Jan 30, 2013 12:19 pm • linkreport

@bone: I haven't walked it in a while, but I have walked it enough to know that I don't want to do it again any time soon.

@Jim: Yeah, so would I. Unfortunately, on weekends that's not an option. See previous gripes about Metro headway and transfer times. A lot of people don't have a choice but to drive.

by Ser Amantio di Nicolao on Jan 30, 2013 12:34 pm • linkreport

I'm with @bone. I worked next door in the Watergate 600 building for a couple of years and found the walk to Foggy Bottom station to be quick and pleasant. In my mental map I expected it to be a long way, but once you walk it you find it really isn't.

For people who are disabled or dragging along kids -- or wearing heels -- the shuttle buses are frequent and quick. I really think the KC gets a bum rap about accessibility without a car.

by c5karl on Jan 30, 2013 12:35 pm • linkreport

A friend lives on 24th, and getting to Kencen from 24th or NH is not that difficult. There are crosswalks and lights like most other intersections. Its not more difficult to cross than any other state-named wide street in the District, and a shorter distance to cross than most of the streets around the mall.

by spookiness on Jan 30, 2013 12:39 pm • linkreport

Great architect, Generous patron, and a great design within the parameters that were given. The problem is that this site has so many negative constraints that the result can be nothing but a badly compromised solution. The KC, the city and the feds need to work on healing the context first, then provide the architecture. There is no reason why the parkway cannot be eliminated and the traffic sent to a decked over freeway on the other side of the Kennedy Center. The bridge is going to be replaced one day, it should be aligned with Constitution Avenue per the McMillan plan. As for National Airport, what other world city would allow a major airport so close? As wonderful as it would be to see more of Holl's design work in DC, as it stands this is just throwing good money after bad.

by Jon H on Jan 30, 2013 12:58 pm • linkreport

As far as the underground part goes, I would tend to agree. However, having been to Holl's addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, he's shown how you can make those underground spaces open and inviting.

I work in the Capitol Visitors Center, and I think that most of my coworkers would kill for some windows or natural daylight. By preserving viewsheds of the capitol, we ended up creating a building that is a pretty awful work environment for a lot of people.

by andrew on Jan 30, 2013 1:18 pm • linkreport

Yes, I have made the walk from Foggy Bottom to the Kennedy Center. I found it to be pretty much the same as every other 10 minute walk I've made in this city. What is so unpleasant about it?

by bone on Jan 30, 2013 1:33 pm • linkreport

@Jon H: "what other world city would allow a major airport so close?"

San Diego

by JFMAMJJASON on Jan 30, 2013 1:33 pm • linkreport

Let's not forget about Arthur Cotton Moore's proposed the Kennedy Center/Potomac River Pedestrian Access Improvement Project.

"In 1987 in The Washington Post, Mr. Moore, who designed the Washingtion Harbour project nearby on the Georgetown waterfront, proposed extending the promenade from the Washington Harbour complex around to the Kennedy Center — and then — connecting the Center’s terrace to the Potomac River via a grand stair. The proposal was adopted by the National Capital Planning Commission but has yet to be executed."

by Juanita de Talmas on Jan 30, 2013 1:39 pm • linkreport

Well for the sake of argument, we'll say most people are coming from the Metro if not driving. There is minimal bus service to the KC from most places. Looking at google maps, it's a half mile walk which involves six crosswalks (through one single access point accross VA Ave) which as I recall are unpleasant and not ped oriented. I think that's enough to say it's not very ped accessible compared to other urban entertainment centers. Add to that the fact that you might want to dress up for a show makes it unlikely most people will be interested in traveling on foot.

by Alan B. on Jan 30, 2013 2:12 pm • linkreport

@ Alan B:Add to that the fact that you might want to dress up for a show makes it unlikely most people will be interested in traveling on foot.

I've never understood why people dress up to sit in the dark. Makes absolutely no sense.

by Jasper on Jan 30, 2013 2:59 pm • linkreport

I've never understood why people dress up to sit in the dark. Makes absolutely no sense.

They dress up to see and been seen before and after the show and during intermission.

by Downtown Alley on Jan 30, 2013 3:45 pm • linkreport

I either park at KC or walk from my office on L street if the weather is nice (our firm provides underground spaces 24/7 so I can leave the car there if I need to). Never had any problems. The walk is only about a mile. I am there once or twice a month or more. I don't dress up except for maybe a nice jacket depending on the weather or company. I do like the idea of decking over the highway a lot.

by theodore on Jan 30, 2013 3:49 pm • linkreport

Good idea above about closing down the stretch of Rock Creek Parkway in front of the Kennedy Center and re-routing traffic through the I-66 spur trench.

Would do nothing for reconnecting the Kennedy Center to the city, but at least could rescue the promenade/river.

by xmal on Jan 30, 2013 3:55 pm • linkreport

Why do people dress up for anything for that matter? I mean if I had my way I'd show up to work in a tshirt and jeans every day. People have been dressing up for thousands and thousands of years though so it must just be human nature.

by Alan B. on Jan 30, 2013 4:08 pm • linkreport

If we are really trying to make that area visually pleasant and usable, we should really address the building itself. The building is just as big of disaster as the neighboring 66 bridge.

by Petworth on Jan 30, 2013 6:25 pm • linkreport

I really hope GGW doesn't do the degrees of "dressing up" and casual in different settings again...

by selxic on Jan 30, 2013 6:43 pm • linkreport

The KC is a good example of celebrity architecture that hasn't worn well, although it has a kistch quality. It also has the ambiance of shopping mall. KC actually isn't that far from Metro, but probably not a comfortable distance in fancy dress in hot or inclement weather. The planned new addition looks like a soccer field and I'd like to know what would happen to the float in a flash flood, which would have argued agaisnt Stone's original design.

There's a reason that outdoor ampitheatres aren't near freeways or major flight routes. If KC needs space for classes, an attractive utilitarian building would work just fine.

by Rich on Jan 30, 2013 9:35 pm • linkreport

All I want to do is to walk from the Lincoln Memorial to the Kennedy Memorial. Will this help?

by tour guide on Jan 30, 2013 10:03 pm • linkreport

A few clarifications. According to the limited plans the Kennedy Center has provided, the building is not actually underground. The roof is grass, and the landscape is banked up to the building, but it's not really underground.

When I say highway to nowhere, I mean the I-66 spur to the Whitehaven and the E street expressway. Both could be replaced with urban boulevards without creating a terrible bottleneck.

I agree also that there need to be some residential and retail options near the KC. That would be better than any pedestrian bridge or grand plaza.

Tour guide: Yes, on the Rock Creek trail.

As for dressing up, the Paris Opera was designed with balconies over the main stair, so that people could watch others arrive. Whatever you think about that it's definitely the part of arts culture, even movies.

by Neil Flanagan on Jan 31, 2013 4:59 am • linkreport

I agree that the floating stage is a stupid idea for all the reasons previously mentioned. Airplane noise is a problem for Millennium Stage performances in the foyer - heaven help you if you're trying to perform outdoors. I like the rest of the plan, though.

I go to Millennium Stage regularly and have no trouble getting from Foggy Bottom Metro to KC, either by shuttle or on foot.

by John Flack on Jan 31, 2013 1:06 pm • linkreport

Sorry to say, Neal, the Rock Creek trail is really unpleasant for pedestrians as it SQUEEZES under the bridges. Peds are huddled near cars zipping along. It is noisey too. Then crossing Rock Creek Parkway from the river to the Kennedy Center requires a long wait for traffic flying by. The trail might look good on paper, but it is really unpleasant. Everything here is an auto-centric design.

by tour guide on Jan 31, 2013 6:18 pm • linkreport

I've never understood why people dress up to sit in the dark. Makes absolutely no sense.

Have you never been on a date, man? People do eat.


by oboe on Feb 1, 2013 10:01 am • linkreport

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