The busiest performing arts venue in the United States isn’t in New York City (population, just under 8.5 million). It’s not in Los Angeles (3.8 million), or even in Chicago (2.7 million). It’s in the Nation’s Capital, Washington, D.C. (650,000). The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, opened in 1971, hosts about 2,000 performances a year for audiences totaling nearly two million—three times the city’s population! (New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, opened in 1962 and at 16.3 acres, the largest performing arts space in the world, presents 400 performances on its campus, with an attendance of 3.5 million spectators; LCPA’s constituent organizations, not all of whom perform exclusively at Lincoln Center itself, produce as many as 5,000 performances. The Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles County, which opened in 1964 as the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, presents more than 30 performances a year to 1.3 million spectators. Chicago doesn’t have an operating multi-theater, variable-use performance center.)
The idea for a National Cultural Center in Washington began to surface in the 1930s, promoted by then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Nothing came of the first discussions except some congressional hearings in 1935, but in the 1950s, during the Dwight Eisenhower administration (1953-61) and the post-World War II economic upturn, the notion gained currency. Between 1955 and 1958, despite controversy over concept, cost, and location, Congress debated the proposal to build a large performing arts center in the Capital. In 1958, Congress passed the National Cultural Center Act and President Eisenhower signed it into law. Architect Edward Durell Stone was selected as architect for the project and by 1959, the price tag had risen to $61 million ($492 million in 2014 dollars), but despite the increase in cost, payment for which was mandated to be by private funding, the designs were well received by the press and were quickly approved by the pertinent government agencies.
When John F. Kennedy, a lifelong supporter and advocate of the arts, took office (1961), he made the realization of the National Cultural Center one of his highest priorities. He called the arts “our contribution to the human spirit,” words inscribed on the River Terrace outside the Grand Foyer, and appointed First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and former First Lady Mamie Eisenhower honorary co-chairmen of the Center to help raise funds. The name of the new complex was changed to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in January1964, two months after the assassination of President Kennedy on 22 November 1963. In a December 1963 letter to the Senate and House chairmen of the Committee on Renaming the National Cultural Center in honor of JFK, President Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-69) wrote: “It seems to me that a center for the performing arts . . . would be one of the most appropriate memorials that a grateful nation could establish to honor a man who had such deep and abiding convictions about the importance of cultural activities in our national life.” Johnson signed the bill making the name-change official on 23 January 1964.
Ground was broken at the Foggy Bottom site by President Johnson on 2 December 1964, excavation began ten days later, and construction got underway in 1967. The Kennedy Center had its formal opening ceremony on 8 September 1971 with the gala première of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, a requiem for JFK which had actually débuted on the 5th in a performance before the general public, inaugurating the Opera House (2,350 seats), one of the Center’s three main performance spaces. (On 10 September, Alberto Ginastera’s opera Beatrix Cenci premièred at the Opera House for its traditional opening.) The Concert Hall (2,442 seats) was inaugurated on 9 September 1971, at a performance by the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antal Doráti, and the Eisenhower Theatre (1,100 seats) opened on 18 October with a performance of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House starring Claire Bloom (in a new translation by playwright Christopher Hampton that had played on Broadway in rep with Hedda Gabler earlier in the year). KCPA is the home of the National Symphony Orchestra (Concert Hall), the Washington National Opera (Opera House), and the Washington Ballet (Eisenhower). KCPA has made its stages available to companies without adequate home bases, such as the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company (2001-05; now located in the Penn Quarter of downtown Washington) and the Synetic Theater (2006-11; now installed in Arlington, Virginia).
Other KC performance spaces include the 324-seat Family Theater (formerly the American Film Institute Film Theater) that opened in 2005; it specializes in showing family theater performances for the nation’s young audiences. The 513-seat Terrace Theater was built in the late 1970s on the roof terrace level as an intimate venue for chamber music, ballet, and contemporary dance and theater. The Theater Lab, seating 399 patrons, has housed Shear Madness, a whodunit spoof originally written by German playwright Paul Pörtner, continuously since August 1987. The Millennium Stage is part of Performing Arts for Everyone, a program established by then-Kennedy Center Chairman James Johnson in the winter of 1997 to provide free performances every evening at 6 o’clock on two specially created stages at either end of the Grand Foyer. In March 2003, the former Education Resource Center was renamed the Terrace Gallery, now the home of the KC Jazz Club. KCPA also hosts several events and programs every year in its various spaces, such as the American College Theater Festival (since 1969), the Kennedy Center Honors (1978), and the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor (1998); Very Special Arts, established in 1974 by Jean Kennedy Smith for people with disabilities, became the Kennedy Center’s Department of VSA and Accessibility in 2011.
The original Kennedy Center building, set on a 17-acre site on the banks of the Potomac River, was designed by Edward Durell Stone with a height of 100 feet, length of 630 feet, and width of 300 feet. The Center features a 630-foot-long, 63-foot-high Grand Foyer, and the Hall of States and the Hall of Nations are both 250 feet long and 63 feet high. The building has been praised for its acoustics, and the 80,000-square-foot terrace overlooking the river. (The River Terrace, open to the public free of charge, offers four panoramas: the Rosslyn, Virginia, skyline to the west; the Potomac River and National Airport to the south; Washington Harbor and the Watergate complex to the north; the Lincoln Memorial, the State Department, George Washington University, and the Saudi Arabian embassy—KCPA’s Foggy Bottom neighbors—to the east.) However, as time went on, many performing arts journalists, architecture critics, and patrons have raised complaints about the inaccessibility from KCPA to the river, the Mall, and the other presidential monuments and memorials to which the original building provided no direct route. In the New York Times, architecture critic Ida Louise Huxtable, who died in January 2013, described the edifice as “a cross between a concrete candy box and a marble sarcophagus in which the art of architecture lies buried” and quipped, “Albert Speer would have approved.” Then-New York Times theater reviewer Clive Barnes expressed delight that at last “New York no longer has the ugliest opera house in North America.”
By 1990, the condition of the Kennedy Center had so deteriorated that Congress appropriated $27.7 million for capital improvements. From 1995 to 2005, over $200 million of federal funds were allocated to KCPA for long-term capital projects and repairs, and to bring the center into compliance with modern fire-safety and handicap-accessibility codes. Improvements included renovations to the Concert Hall, Opera House, and plaza-level public spaces; renovations to the Eisenhower Theater were completed in 2008. Then, in January 2013, the Kennedy Center announced preliminary plans for a $100 million expansion of its facilities. In addition to its practical purposes of adding dedicated educational, rehearsal, and event space, as well as administrative offices, the tentative expansion, according to a recent press release, will improve “access to and from the Kennedy Center, NAMA [National Mall and Memorial Parks], the Rock Creek Paved Recreation Trail, the Potomac River waterfront, and surrounding vicinity.” It will be the first renovation of the Kennedy Center in a decade and is a more modest reinstatement of a 2005 planned reconstruction that foundered when funding fell through. Groundbreaking for the expansion project is scheduled for December, with the opening of the new construction planned for May 2017, for the 100th anniversary of JFK’s birth.
Steven Holl, with senior partner Chris McVoy of New York’s Steven Holl Architects in partnership with BNIM Architects of Kansas City, has been selected as the architect to lead the up-date of Edward Durell Stone’s original KC design for what Philip Kennicott, Pulitzer Prize-winning art and architecture critic of the Washington Post, called “the legendary marble box of culture.” “Long isolated from the city by a warren of highways,” lamented Kennicott, “and disconnected from the Potomac River by a cantilevered balcony that limits access to Washington’s most splendid natural asset, the Kennedy Center has been a study in urban isolation since its opening in 1971.”
In fact, the physical and artistic isolation of KCPA has been an issue of long standing. In March 2011, the Washington Post published columns on the Kennedy Center by critics of classical music (Anne Midgette), theater (Peter Marks), jazz (Matt Schudel), dance (Sarah Kaufman), and design (Kennicott), and all of them voiced a variation on this complaint: “How did the Kennedy Center lose its way . . .?” as Architect magazine’s Kriston Capps phrased it. Stone’s original Kennedy Center design, before budgetary constraints abbreviated the plan, connected it to the Potomac with a curving veranda. Kennicott suggests that Holl’s concept, inspired by Stone’s initial vision (and subject to change), may be about to restore that idea.
The pragmatic end of the project, three new connected pavilions to be constructed south of the existing building, will remedy the fact that the Kennedy Center, with its 1.5 million square feet of space, was designed with inadequate rehearsal, classrooms, or event space, and only one office. The largest performing arts education program in the nation, working with 11 million children a year, KCPA contains no dedicated classrooms. The Kennedy Center also needs large rehearsal space for its 2,000 yearly productions of theater, opera, and ballet, and work space for its training of arts managers. Former Kennedy Center President Michael M. Kaiser founded the DeVos Institute of Arts Management in 2001 and it’s grown since then. (Kaiser stepped down from his post as KC president in September, but will stay on until 2017 to run the DeVos Institute.)
But the most salient changes will be in the public spaces. These will include gardens that will blend the Center with the surrounding landscape and the Potomac River. “The overall concept was to fuse architecture and landscape,” says Holl. “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 plans also include new landscaping, including a reflecting pool. To avoid interrupting the present structure’s silhouette, over half of the new pavilion space will be underground, and the expansion will connect below grade and also through the main plaza that will be created with the removal of the existing south terrace wall. One pavilion, accessed by two elevated walkways spanning Rock Creek Parkway, will house an open-air stage floating on the Potomac River, rising and falling with the water level. The second pavilion will serve as a new entrance to the Center for arrivals by bus; the third and largest pavilion, called the “Glissando” because its curved shape is a visual expression of the rapid swoop of sounds that’s a familiar characteristic of the harp or piano, would contain the classrooms and rehearsal studios. An outdoor wall of the Glissando Pavilion will be a gigantic screen for the projection of simulcast performances and other multimedia events.
Glass is a prominent element in the new design. In addition to the projection wall, the pavilions will have windows so that visitors can watch the creative work unfold in many of the rehearsal rooms. Along with Carrara marble, the same Italian marble from which Stone created the original façade, the new additions will be clad in translucent Okalux. An insulating glass that diffuses light, “It glows like a Japanese lantern,” Holl has said.
The plans are to attract visitors to the Kennedy Center with the outdoor stage and the gardens where they can see a free performance, eat at a new restaurant, or picnic by the river. (The open-air stage brings to mind the “Water Gate Steps,” the staircase that leads down from the Lincoln Memorial grounds to the Potomac where there once was a stage on a barge that hosted popular summer concerts between 1935 and 1965. Anyone who’s seen the 1958 Cary Grant-Sophia Loren movie Houseboat will know this site.) Holl’s preliminary plans also call for a memorial garden in honor of JFK which may include 46 Gingko trees to commemorate Kennedy’s life span and 35 rows of lavender to denote that he was the 35th U.S. president. Former KC president Kaiser sees a performing arts museum as part of the expansion and the Center’s new chairman, Deborah F. Rutter, who took over the post in September, hopes that the new developments will create informal spaces that will encourage patrons and visitors to interact with artists. “We wanted to make an artistic statement,” said Kaiser. “We weren’t just looking for a mini version of what we had.”
The new addition will add a modest 60,000 square feet to the existing structure, compared with the whopping 400,000-square-foot plan that was proposed in 2003 (at a cost of $650 million—$837 million today). Anticipating a federal outlay of $400 million, the funding didn’t materialize and the whole effort was shelved in 2005. In the present effort, half the $100 million expected cost has been donated by philanthropist David M. Rubenstein, current KC chair. It’s the single largest gift in the institution’s history and is among the largest ever given to any federally-supported nonprofit organization. Said Rubenstein, “When you’re the chairman of something, you have the obligation to be a leader.”
Architect Holl has said he’s moved by contributing to an edifice that honors JFK. “Kennedy was so important for me,” admitted Holl, who’d have been not quite 13 when JFK was elected in 1960. The enabling legislation that named the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts also designated it “the living memorial” to the slain president and “the sole national monument to his memory” in the Capital. The façade of the original building is festooned with quotations on the arts from Kennedy, and Holl followed a similar pattern on the expansion structures with Kennedy’s statements about water. One famous Kennedy quotation, “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. Paying homage to the young JFK’s wartime service in the navy, the reflecting pool in the green space will have the same dimensions as PT 109, the famous torpedo boat Lieutenant Kennedy skippered in the Pacific. The decking of the pool will be the same mahogany planks as the legendary PT boat.
There are still objections to the Kennedy Center’s design, even as amended by Holl’s expansion. As Philip Kennicott protests, “Unfortunately, nothing in the new plan addresses the atrocious architecture of the main Kennedy Center building, a giant box of ostentatious red carpet and dispiriting, Soviet-scaled corridors, with no central social hub and inferior acoustics dogging the overscale Concert Hall.” The architecture writer also observes that the new link to the river, though welcome, would not be direct enough to allow spectators to walk down during intermissions, and there’ll still be no connection to the restaurants at 23rd and E Streets, the Foggy Bottom Metro station, or the busy neighborhood of the George Washington University campus. “But it is a start,” acknowledged Kennicott, and “a little bit of life will flow in through a new side channel, and that will be a distinct improvement.”
I guess I’m just not as perceptive as Kennicott, Huxtable, and Barnes, or as demanding—at least architecturally speaking. I’ve never felt as alienated at the Kennedy Center as they seem to have, and most of my performance experiences there have been excellent. The United States has never really had a national theater, and maybe that’s right. Theater and performing arts in the U.S. has never really been centralized like it has been in England or France, where London and Paris served not only as the countries’ governmental seats but the cultural ones as well. (We’re more like Germany, which has important theaters, opera companies, and orchestras all over the country.) In our earliest colonial days, theater centers were established not only in New York City but in Philadelphia, Boston, New Orleans (originally French, of course), Baltimore, and Charleston. As the country expanded west, important theaters were founded in Chicago and San Francisco. In the 1940s, what we now call regional theaters arose all across the country, many of then in cities that became fertile grounds for theater, such as Milwaukee, Seattle, Houston, Atlanta, and Minneapolis. By the ’80s, Washington itself became a go-to destination for theater with the Arena Stage, Catholic University’s theater program, the National Theatre for pre- and post-Broadway tours, and eventually, the Kennedy Center and the smaller Off-Broadway- and Off-Off-Broadway-level troupes that have proliferated here for several decades now. Sure, New York remains the preeminent theater center in the U.S., but companies and productions, writers, actors and directors have made many cities focuses of exciting theater work independent of the Big Apple and the Great White Way. (I recently published an old report on the Theatre of Nations in 1986—see the post on 10 November—and one complaint about the U.S. theater scene then was that the artists of the various regional theater centers didn’t communicate with those in the other regions and so remained walled off from each other’s work. That’s just less true today than it was 28 years ago.)
In 1984, an attempt to launch an official American National Theater at the Kennedy Center was short lived, lasting only until 1986. It was a collaborative effort between KCPA, then newly under the direction of the very young (and, I say, superlatively arrogant) Peter Sellars (he was all of 26), and the long-dormant American National Theatre and Academy (ANTA), established in 1935 by Congressional charter. There was much caviling that such a project ought to have been located in New York City, the theater capital of the United States (if not the world), but I always felt that it belonged in the Nation’s Capital. (Of course, I’m a self-proclaimed D.C. chauvinist.) Probably an ANT, should the concept be revived, shouldn’t be modeled on the Royal National Theatre of the U.K., but operate as a showcase of U.S. theater art and productions from around the country, as well as from abroad to expose U.S. audiences and artists to the work of theater artists from other nations and cultures. (Organizations like Lincoln Center and the Brooklyn Academy of Music do an excellent job of this latter, however.)
Providing a platform for regional excellence was, in fact, part of the Sellars plan for ANT at the Kennedy Center, and he did host a Chicago season with productions from the then-nascent Wisdom Bridge and Steppenwolf troupes. (The complete plan for ANT included original productions and it was there, I think, that the concept foundered. Sellars’s selections were ill-advised and his response to the negative reception from both press and audiences was condescending.)
If the Kennedy Center is to have a life as an official or unofficial national theater—and the same criteria would hold for KC’s music, opera, and dance presentations as well—it probably ought to be as a national spotlight for the best and most interesting—including, I’d hope, the most challenging—art developed and presented across out country. The newly-enhanced facilities, when they’re realized, will make this mission not only more possible, but really obligatory. This is so not just because the Center’s located in Washington, but because of its namesake. An arts memorial to JFK ought by mandate to present the nation’s cultural pride, both what has been created all along its formative continuum, and what’s being forged now, breaking new ground and pushing the envelop in the major theater centers of the country and the little pockets where sometimes surprising new ideas pop up as if by magic. Those are what the new John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts should house and spotlight—in the capital city of the people who invented jazz, rock ’n’ roll, and the American musical; baseball, American football, and basketball; telephone and television; and moon rockets. That’s the true “contribution to the human spirit” of the most innovative and inventive society on Earth.