The John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts Has a New Cultural Exhibition

Courtesy Elman Studio for the Kennedy Center

The Kennedy Center’s nimble expansion opens the American institution to fresh ideas.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in Washington, D.C., is housed in a regally modernist, white-marble-clad 1971 building designed by Edward Durell Stone. A living memorial to the 35th president, it overlooks the Potomac River like a temple. It is famous for black-tie galas and the annual Kennedy Center Honors. 

But on September 7, a radically different expansion of the Center will open just to the south. Designed by Steven Holl Architects, the new space is called the reach, an acronym for the institution’s mission to “Renew, Experience, Activate, Create, and Honor” the legacy of JFK. For Holl, reach— with its three pavilions set among lawns and gardens designed by Edmund Hollander—was meant to embody a more harmonious relationship between architecture and landscape, a fitting metaphor for its boundary-breaking cultural ambitions. 

Jonathan Morefield/Courtesy Kennedy Center

While Stone’s grand building reflects the Kennedy Center’s more traditional programming, including classical music, opera, dance, and theater, Holl’s far more fluid design is intended to invite new, immersive, and collaborative modes of performance. The varied ecosystem the reach hopes to nurture will include Esperanza Spalding and Wayne Shorter’s jazz opera; Renée Fleming singing with Angélique Kidjo; and programming by Q-Tip, of the seminal hip-hop collective Tribe Called Quest. Most of the performances will be free. 

Holl’s firm won a competition to design the expansion in 2013, but rather than keeping to the brief—a single structure adjacent to the main building—he and the firm’s senior partner, Chris McVoy, had a different idea: “Instead of an ‘object’ building,” Holl says, “I thought of pavilions with natural light.” McVoy adds, “The project becomes as much about the landscape between the buildings.” 

Jonathan Morefield/Courtesy Kennedy Center

Indeed, the Welcome and Skylight Pavilions emerge from a 130,000-square-foot green roof. Their expansive interiors are mostly belowground, but draw in generous amounts of daylight; some have views of the Potomac or a reflecting pool. The River Pavilion contains a café where a wall of windows can open to turn the space into a stage, visible from the lawn. The north side of the Skylight Pavilion doubles as a video wall for film screenings and free simulcasts of Kennedy Center events. The structures, with their generous windows, glow from within, making the entire composition as welcoming by night as it is by day. If the Kennedy Center’s goal is to represent all the arts, not just elite forms, the reach gives them an elegant, egalitarian home.