A small, sculptural concrete building standing beside Washington's Kennedy Center.
The Reach, a new expansion for the Kennedy Center designed by Steven Holl, opens September 7. Richard Barnes

The new addition to D.C.’s performing-arts behemoth strives to create a sense of lightness, movement, and intimacy—qualities that the original building lacks.

On one view, the new expansion of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is an overdue correction. Dubbed the Reach, the expansion features a newly landscaped terrace with three angular, brilliant pavilions. The project introduces several welcome amenities that the first building forgot. Things like windows. Scale. Rooms.

The original building was troubled from day one. In her review for The New York Times, Ada Louise Huxtable declared war on the Kennedy Center, ripping into Edward Durrell Stone’s monumental temple as a marble “superbunker.” She enumerated the Kennedy Center’s many excesses, from its 600-foot-long, 60-foot-high grand foyer (an “apotheosized corridor”) to its 18 crystal chandeliers. Her 1971 curtain-raiser likened the building’s flag-hung halls to a Soviet palace. It’s a marvel the Kennedy Center bothered to open at all.  

So the Reach, the expansion designed by Steven Holl Architects that opens on September 7, is mindful not to be another Overreach. There are no gold pillars, no red carpets, and almost no marble. From the above-ground view of the Kennedy Center’s south lawn, the expansion even resembles a great white block that’s been struck by lightning, split open by the heavens into three irregular chunks.

“There’s all this awe-inspiring activity taking place behind these marble walls. But nobody can see it,” says Deborah Rutter, president of the Kennedy Center, referring to Stone’s memorial building, which measures 630 by 300 by 100 feet (with few windows).

In almost every possible way, the Reach is a pivot from the Kennedy Center’s imperiousness. The Reach is open, with porous barriers to distinguish passageways from performance spaces. It’s light, with apertures that reach even below-grade areas. And it’s fluid, with unexpected twists at every turn. Yet the expansion is extravagant to a fault and disorienting to explore—qualities that it inherited from its federal paterfamilias.

Established by Congress as a memorial the year after President John F. Kennedy’s death, the Kennedy Center opened 48 years ago, nearly to the date. (Despite Huxtable’s best efforts.) Over the years, it has added programs to accommodate newer categories of performance (namely with the Millennium Stage). But the performance hall is almost single-mindedly suited to large-scale productions such as those of the Washington National Opera or Hamilton. Spaces at the Reach, all of which are named after details from JFK’s life, are tailor-made to showcase the performing-arts center’s smaller stage acts, from hip-hop to dance to ceramics demonstrations.  

Picture a horizontal triangular plane that intersects three vertical columns (named the Entrance, Skylight, and River pavilions). That begins to describe the layout of the Reach. The entire 72,000-square-foot facility is nested within a sloping riverside landscape that runs to nearly five acres, offering some 130,000 square feet of gardens and greenways. Visitors walking the length of the Reach will see green rooftops that gradually descend underfoot. Visitors walking the perimeter of the Reach can peer into studios at multiple levels.

They might start at the Entrance Pavilion, which is accessible from the parking garage, the street, and the Stone building. By several routes, patrons will enter the pavilion underground, although they might never know it. All three pavilions are above-ground caps to a structure that weaves above and below grade. The experience never feels claustrophobic. (Holl likes to play with orientation in space: In Shenzhen, China, he designed a project known as the Horizontal Skyscraper, which is as long as the Empire State Building is tall.)

“It’s all about planes and volumes,” says Chris McVoy, senior partner with Steven Holl Architects, speaking about the Reach. “The rooms become the structure.”

A view of the above-ground and below-ground structure of the Reach. (Richard Barnes)

From the inside, the Reach expansion conceals as it reveals. Several studios, most of which can be configured for either performance or rehearsal needs, offer sight lines to the outdoors. The windows in P.T. 109 (a flex space named for the boat that Kennedy commanded during World War II) look out over a patio deck and reflecting pool; some of this glass is strategically etched (or frosted) to block views of cars along the adjacent spaghetti spool of highways. Elsewhere, a person walking by the building might be able to peer inside Studio F and catch (say) a rehearsal led by Tiler Peck, the principal dancer for the New York City Ballet.

So windows offer light, but they also speak to the philosophy behind the whole expansion. Rutter says that the younger audiences that the Kennedy Center hopes to attract want to see more than the polished production. They want to see how the work is made. There is no backstage to the Justice Forum (a heavy title for the Reach’s most intimate stage); when performers exit the space, they’re out in the hall. Rutter compares the setup to a comedian performing at a bar: “When the comedian finishes a set, they’re just in the pub.”

The informal jumble of thoroughfares and practice spaces at the Reach stands in stark contrast to the imposing march from the Hall of Nations to the Opera House at the Stone building. One is like jazz; the other is, well, opera. But the improvisational air is also a bit of a put-on. Holl’s interiors for the Reach boast some of the finest, most exacting finishes in the city. The Justice Forum as well as Studios J, F, and K—(get it?)—all feature walls lined with a material called crinkle concrete, a breakthrough in acoustics technology developed by the architects. And throughout the Reach, the board-formed concrete surfaces infused with titanium white pigment are both blindlingly bright and tantalizingly touchable.

Ballet dancers practice in Studio J. (Richard Barnes)

While the landscape is still literally growing into place, it’s already a muscular asset of the new campus. There are symbolic treatments, like the grove of 35 gingko trees planted to honor the 35th president, but the geometry steals the show. Along the sloping terrace, Holl and landscape architect Edmund Hollander built a few curving stretches of green that the architects call “sedum swoops.” These correspond to curvilinear roofs or walls that form the pavilions. These bends in the surface are planted with sedum, a succulent grass sturdy enough to grow vertically when the curvature of the landscape calls for it. Imagine a triangle that’s been lifted and turned at its vertex, with one face covered in greenery and the other textured concrete.

One of the challenges for the Reach was to thread the site with the city. The expansion occupies an isolated promontory bounded by Rock Creek Parkway and the Interstate 66 exchange on two sides (and the solemn Stone building on the other). The designers built a new pedestrian bridge which spans the parkway, connecting the Reach to an improved promenade along the Potomac River and the Rock Creek Park Trail. Bicycle paths now reach the site, too. The River Pavilion introduces an attractive new cafe and bar (with a sliding glass wall) to an area that sorely lacks in amenities. (Holl’s original design put the River Pavilion in the Potomac River, but it didn’t pass muster with federal stakeholders.)

The most magical space at the Reach might be the Skylight Pavilion, where many of Holl’s signatures all come together: a cutaway corner skylight, a wall-spanning window that will make the whole volume appear to glow at night. None of the walls meet in exact corners. Lamps suspended from the 36-foot-tall ceilings look as if though they’re floating on air. The precedent that comes to mind for this pavilion is Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut chapel in Ronchamp, France. McVoy notes that the curving exterior of the Skylight Pavilion is the rare wall that casts a shadow onto itself.

The view of the Reach from inside the Skylight Pavilion. (Richard Barnes)

Finding the Skylight Pavilion or any other specific destination, however, will be a challenge. From the Moonshot Studio to the Hammersmith Lounge, there are too many named spaces, and because the studios are designed to fit flexible needs, they all appear to suit the same amorphous purpose. A glance at the calendar for the expansion’s two-week-long opening festivities reveals a rainbow blur of color-coded performances and happenings scheduled at spaces with Camelot-inspired names that don’t tell people anything. This is not all the architects’ fault: The Kennedy Center might not know yet what it wants the Reach to do.

The original brief for the expansion called for back-of-house space for administrative or rehearsal use. McVoy says that Holl envisioned a living memorial from the outset, before the client had even settled on event spaces stretching down along the Potomac River; the firm’s design edged past entries from Richard Meier & Partners, Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, and Diller Scofidio + Renfro. The architect’s conceit was to open the Kennedy Center to the city and invite the audience onto the stage by turning the building inside out.

Films and live productions can be projected or simulcast onto a video wall. (Richard Barnes)

The hope is that the new Kennedy Center will dash the audience’s expectations for a performance venue. Wayfinding isn’t an issue for a visitor who is open to a bit of improvisation from the venue itself. The Reach was made for accidents, whether that’s the office worker who wanders in for coffee and lingers to watch a cellist rehearse, or a jogger who catches a glimpse of ballet while running on a drizzly day, or a couple with a 7:30 curtain who bail for a comedy set instead. The Reach is painstakingly, exquisitely, exactingly designed for chance.

Thirty-seven-hundred tons of Carrara marble went into the construction of the original Kennedy Center. Throughout the new Reach expansion, there’s only a single isolated incident of marble: the donor plaque near the entrance. This marble is the only physical tether to the original building, and the architects went all the way to Italy, to the exact same quarry where the first building was mined, to find it. That’s effort. The Reach goes to incredible lengths to show how this new Kennedy Center is not the old Kennedy Center. The effort is epic. “Washington superscale,” Huxtable once called it.

The Reach features a new pedestrian bridge to connect visitors to the Potomac riverside. (Richard Barnes)

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