The Kennedy Center announced Tuesday that it plans to build a $100 million expansion to the nation’s busiest performing arts venue. Designed by American architect Steven Holl, the privately funded project would help connect the multitheater complex with Washington’s waterfront and includes public green spaces, a video projection wall for simulcast productions and a floating outdoor stage on the Potomac River.
The new plan, which pays tribute in its architectural detail to President John F. Kennedy, includes three pavilions to house classrooms, rehearsal facilities and multipurpose rooms for the center’s educational programs. The expansion, south of the 42-year-old complex, aims to solve some of the most pressing space constraints for a facility that hosts some 2,000 performances each year.
Kennedy Center Chairman David M. Rubenstein will donate $50 million to the project, the single largest gift in the institution’s history.
“He has funded programming in many ways,” said Michael M. Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center. “And now also a physical structure.”
The project is neither the loftiest nor the most expensive expansion by a Washington arts institution in recent years. The 200,000-square-foot renovation of Arena Stage, completed in 2010, carried a price tag of $135 million. Still, the expansion would serve a need that has dogged the Kennedy Center for over a decade: Its growing budget and programming necessitate physical growth.
The Kennedy Center brings in about 2 million people each year. An additional 1 million tour the complex annually. It serves the dual purposes of bustling arts center and memorial to Kennedy. And with the 2011 acquisition of the Washington National Opera, which rehearses in Takoma Park, and the growth of Kaiser’s DeVos Institute of Arts Management, classrooms and rehearsal spaces are needed more than ever.
“We run the largest arts education program in the country,” Kaiser said. “We work with 11 million children a year . . . but the building doesn’t have a classroom in it.”
“We don’t have rehearsal space of any consequence at the Kennedy Center,” Rubenstein echoed.
Holl, praised for his ability to blend existing buildings with contemporary structures, said the center’s proximity to the Potomac inspired his design and pays homage to Kennedy’s love of the sea.
“The overall concept was to fuse architecture and landscape,” Holl said. “Right from the beginning, I thought of the idea of getting down to the river, that this shouldn’t just be a pragmatic object added on to the existing Kennedy Center.”
The proposed design is relatively small — about 60,000 square feet of indoor space — compared with the existing 1.5 million-square-foot complex. The three pavilions would be connected by unobtrusive pathways or underground tunnels. The most ambitious structure is an outdoor stage that would float on the river, rising and falling with the tide. A second pavilion would provide a new entrance to the Kennedy Center on its south side for those arriving by bus or on foot, while the largest pavilion, named the “glissando,” after the rapid sweep of a musical scale, would contain classroom and rehearsal facilities.
The design emphasizes transparency: Many of the rehearsal rooms would have dramatic windows, allowing passersby to watch the artistic process, and one side of the largest structure would serve as the projection wall.
The expansion celebrates Kennedy’s service in the Navy. A famous Kennedy quote — “When we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch it, we are going back from whence we came” — would be sandblasted into the glass walls of the floating pavilion. Even the landscaping would bear witness to Kennedy’s life. Holl said that one of the reflecting pools in the green space would be the exact length and width of PT-109, the motor torpedo boat Kennedy commanded as a lieutenant during the World War II. The decking on the edge of the pool would be carved from the same kind of mahogany planks as the famous vessel.
Holl was inspired by Edward Durell Stone’s initial design for the Kennedy Center complex, which stretched over the Potomac before it was changed in the planning stages. Holl’s design could address the Kennedy Center’s isolated location by creating parklike public spaces connected to the Mall by existing running paths.
Holl was unanimously selected by an architecture committee that included Kennedy Center board members and staff. Two members of the Kennedy family, Jean Kennedy Smith and Victoria Reggie Kennedy, were part of the panel.
With Rubenstein’s $50 million gift, the center announced a $125 million capital campaign — $50 million for the remaining cost of the project and $25 million for future programming.