Steven Holl’s Subtle ‘Reach’ Humanizes the Kennedy Center

The Reach at dusk.
The Reach at dusk. Photo: Courtesy of Steven Holl Architects

From a distance, the Kennedy Center, like so many Washington institutions, appears stubbornly resistant to change. The blank-walled block of marble sits on its plinth over the Potomac, encircled by a lariat of highways. You can’t staple on a new wing or add a glass-box topper, any more than you could balance a twirling restaurant at the top of the Washington Monument. So, in 2012, when the center put out the word that it needed more rehearsal rooms, event spaces, and classrooms, it envisioned a fairly modest satellite that would be off-limits to the general public. It seemed like an invitation to fail.

I should have had more faith. Steven Holl, who won the competition, is a major American visionary, and his partner Chris McVoy is a virtuoso at turning the boss’s sketches and watercolors into detailed designs. The Kennedy Center’s new complex is not just more fluid, usable, and versatile than we had any right to expect — it is also the rare project that improved on its way from concept and digital renderings to final construction. In two dimensions, it looked worrisomely chilly and abstract; in three, it is warm and subtle, full of gentle arcs, startling reveals, and lively shadows. More importantly, it’s an example of how long-simmering architecture can seem suddenly urgent when, at last, it’s done.

The Kennedy Center’s original architect, Edward Durell Stone, had been lionized for his 1954 U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, a work that seemed at once as timeless as a temple and as fragile as tracing paper. (It, too, is getting a makeover.) In D.C., he recycled the same act on the capital’s immense stage, producing an artifact of deluxe imperial modernism. The Times critic Ada Louise Huxtable was caustic in her reaction: “It is a cross between a concrete candy box and a marble sarcophagus in which the art of architecture lies buried.”

The new assignment saddled Holl with a set of tensions: design an annex for a monument to hermetic symmetry; make it opulent but understated, grand but democratic, lively yet dignified; honor a revered president whose foibles have become more obvious in retrospect; revamp a landmark without upstaging it; and turn an ungainly cromlech into a thing of usable beauty. He has pulled off those impossibilities, all at the same time, in a project aptly called the Reach.

Holl began by tucking most of his 72,000-square-foot addition underground and turning the center’s blank base (actually the roof of an underground garage) into a memorial garden to JFK. A grove of 35 gingko trees pay tribute to the 35th president, and a mahogany deck evokes the one on PT-109, the torpedo boat whose destruction turned Kennedy into a hero of World War II. The indoor spaces start below Stone’s temple and stretch beneath the south plaza. From that buried arm, three fingers poke up into the landscape designed by Edmund Hollander and play cat’s cradle with a web of pathways. Each of the structures has its own distinctive shadows and shape, but they form a four-part harmony with the city. Look southeast, and the Lincoln Memorial is framed between two upsweeping edges; pivot slightly and a different pair of pavilions sets off the Washington Monument. Turn right, and you can follow the line of a new ramped footbridge that lifts up from the Potomac and alights at the edge of the campus. (Holl originally envisioned floating one of the buildings on a pontoon in the river, an idea that was wisely scotched.)

The new complex is both an extension and a reproach. Stone’s design was stiff and precious and self-contained, while Holl’s is supple and ready to be roughed up. Stone presented the arts as a rarefied domain, to be approached like the holy of holies (in theory, anyway: Most people drove into the underground garage, then popped up through the building’s guts). Holl invites bikers, dog walkers, and joggers to come off the Rock Creek Trail along the Potomac and cross the open landscape, and even walk right through the new structures. (Dogs are welcome indoors; bikes are not.)

Stone’s building is filled with interlocking halls and theaters of various sizes, but its architectural expression can be assimilated at a glance. Holl has designed a sequence instead of an object, one that a photograph or a drawing only obscures. In order to understand what he and his firm have wrought, you have to move through tight spaces that explode into vast ones, run your fingers over textured concrete, feel the uplift in a wall’s vertical swoosh (what Holl calls a glissando), see a beam of sunshine dive through a high window and cascade down a staircase or spotlight a dancer stretching on a rubber floor.

“The measure of good architecture is in the experience — in the quality of space, of light, smell, sound, and texture,” he once told me. “A five-year-old can go into a space and be excited about it.” (And so they will: The Reach opens September 7, not with a gala but with a two-week multidisciplinary festival of 400 events, many of them family-friendly and all of them free.)

The new Kennedy Center gathers many of Holl’s obsessions into one place. Ever since he dreamed up seven colored bottles in a stone box for the chapel of St. Ignatius Loyola in Seattle, he’s been interested in distributing space among separate containers. At the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, he threaded a new addition through and below a garden. White surfaces that bend into cones or fold like paper airplanes, walls of translucent glass, sharp cuts through solid masses, forms that look bigger or smaller from a distance than they do up close, the translation of music into architecture — all of these stylistic tropes have accompanied Holl on his multi-decade career. Here, his mannerisms click together and work in sync, each amplifying the others.

Photo: Courtesy of Steven Holl Architects

Stone slathered the Kennedy Center in blinding Carrara marble. Holl considered following suit but in the end decided that white titanium concrete, besides being cheaper, would also yield sharper corners, smoother curves, and an assortment of seductively touchable surfaces. Get close and you find that the building’s pale skin has lines, grain, and pocks left from the boards that shaped it. (The liquid matrix is poured into wooden forms, which means that working with concrete is really a kind of carpentry.) Inside the auditorium, the concrete is gorgeously crinkled, giving the walls depth and personality, like a pachyderm’s skin or a satellite view of a mountain range. This is not just whimsy: The notches and ridges function the way plaster foliage and cherubs do in 18th-century concert halls, diffusing sound waves into rosy reverberations.

Wandering among this grove of textures and gestures, I came across a couple of spaces that especially excited my inner 5-year-old. The first is a stairwell — a future classic, I suspect: A sinuous steel banister appears to float alongside a sheet of frosted glass, the walls have the roughness of raw silk, a vertical cut offers a peep into a dance studio, and an annunciatory shaft of sunlight descends from a triangular skylight that’s cut into the lawn above. We are underground but feel close to the sky.

The heart of the new complex is the Skylight Pavilion, which, though half-buried, is shot through with daylight. It muscles through a curved glass wall that bows in as if it were about to burst, filters through a frosted clerestory, punches in through a clear square, and drops down a crevice in the ceiling. During the day, these variously shaded rays cross and mingle in the room. At night, the flow is reversed, and electric light swirls out in every direction. Holl and McVoy invoke the organic modernism of Alvar Aalto. But I also see the spirit of Álvaro Siza, the Portuguese wizard of a kind of sacramental modernism, whose most beguiling works combine consoling bursts of indoor sunlight, rooms that pour into each other in a series of pleasurable shocks, and white forms that flow like gowns on a moonlit lawn or rear up in stony blocks.

The Reach cost $175 million (in private donations, not taxpayer money), and you can practically see every nickel in the details, which are not so much opulent as artful. Massive, soundproofed wooden doors meet perfectly at corners and swing so delicately on their hinges that they can be pushed with a pinky. Window frames are as thin as pencil lines. A curving exterior wall flops over just enough at the top corner to cast a shadow on itself. These minutiae, usually so quick to fall away when the bean counters get to work, bind the smallest scale to the largest: Whether you’re bending down to tie your shoe and notice the floor’s polished aggregate, or surveying the complex from a drone’s camera, the architecture is identifiably the same.

The new Kennedy Center, like the old one, is emblazoned with inspirational quotes from JFK. “I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the arts” — to read these words, freshly etched in glass but uttered by a U.S. president at a time when the prospect of nuclear war loomed as menacingly as climate change does today, provokes cognitive dissonance. But the center was built with a political agenda. Legislation to construct a national cultural center was passed in 1958, when a nation that was insecure about its cultural life saw the arts as Cold War weapons. Musicians, dancers, actors, and writers were conscripted as soldiers in a global geopolitical contest for prestige. (They have long since been demobilized: The current president has expressed his support of the arts by trying to defund them completely.)

The center remained unbuilt when JFK was assassinated in 1963, and Congress designated it a “living memorial” to him. It finally opened in 1971, with a performance of Mass, by Leonard Bernstein, who had famously led the New York Philharmonic on a tour of the Soviet Union in 1959. Four years later, the superstar cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich was thrown out of the USSR, and almost immediately appointed to head the National Symphony Orchestra: a musical legend of one superpower became the hero of another.

It’s hard to recapture an era when a symphony could matter so much to civic life and foreign affairs. But Kennedy took the long view of the arts, describing their role in a mixture of apocalyptic and prophetic terms: “I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we, too, will be remembered not for victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit.” That prediction still animates Holl, whose architecture fuses the aesthetic with the idealistic. Both in its name and its design, the Reach evokes a time of aspirational optimism, when America was consumed not with what it was at that moment or had been years before, but what it could someday become.

Steven Holl’s Subtle ‘Reach’ Humanizes the Kennedy Center