The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts has commissioned Steven Holl Architects to build a $100 million expansion of the center. Preliminary renderings for the addition, to be designed by Steven Holl, FAIA, and Chris McVoy, AIA, a senior partner at the firm, reveal a reflecting pool, a floating outdoor stage, a "Glissando Pavilion," new performance space and green space—and, of course, Holl's signature white-cube volumes. Crucially, the expansion promises to correct some aspects of the performing-arts center's chief flaw: its great disconnect from the nation's capital.
There's no talking about Steven Holl Architects' expansion plans for the center without talking about the history of the Kennedy Center itself—and why an intervention is so sorely needed. The Kennedy Center was built during a surge of enthusiasm for design and performance, as a shrine to the belief that the arts could capture American minds and encapsulate the American spirit. But something has changed since its opening in 1971, and more than just a growth in program and resulting decline in available space. Just two years ago, The Washington Post published testimonials from five critics—on classical music, theater, jazz, dance, and design—focused on the Kennedy Center. Each was a variation on a theme: The national performing-arts venue was physically and artistically isolated. Many of the complaints were programmatic, but the most significant criticisms encompassed the center's entire history. So any effort to consider how Steven Holl, FAIA, proposes to right the ship must first consider: How did the Kennedy Center lose its way in the first place?
It's no fault of the Kennedy Center's original architect. Edward Durrell Stone deserves a brief history here, because Stone designed any number of stalwart American buildings. Among the icons that he built are Chicago's Aon Center, the National Geographic Museum in Washington, and Busch Memorial Stadium, where the Cards used to play, before the great St. Louis ballpark was razed in 2005. Stone's story is a particularly American story, if not a very representative one. He got his start in New York in October 1929, just as the Great Depression hit. He had no degree from any of the schools he had attended: Boston Architectural Club (now College), Harvard, MIT. And yet Stone's first job was designing the main lobby and ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
Few architects in his day could aim much higher, but from there, Stone joined Reinhardt, Hoffmeister, Hood & Fouilhoux, a firm that was designing the Rockefeller Center; Stone was tasked with designing Radio City Music Hall. The lead architect on the Rockefeller Center recommended Stone as the designer for a new center for a kicky cultural project that had taken up residence in the basement of the Time-Life Building. Stone took the job and produced, with Philip Goodwin, the Museum of Modern Art.
In 1942, Stone enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force, and he planned Army Air Force bases through World War II. After the war, he returned to his practice in New York, where he would fill out his career, chiefly by designing single-family homes and holding illustrious teaching positions at all the nation's best architecture schools: Cornell, Princeton, Stanford, Yale. Stone landed on the cover of TIME magazine, married three times, and saw his firm grow to the point of corporate ubiquity, and later, irrelevance. Which is to say nothing of his post-war and later accomplishments in architecture, including the U.S. Pavilion for the 1958 International Exposition in Brussels and the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, which Frank Lloyd Wright described as "the only embassy that does credit to the United States." If a Greatest Generation sentimentality persists anywhere in American architecture, it does in the work of Edward Durrell Stone.