The Bell Jar

The new expansion of the Arena Stage is nothing if not theatrical. Eighteen monumental columns of Douglas fir sustain a 45-foot-tall glass curtain wall, which curves like a giant Alvar Aalto vase. A cantilevered white cloud of a roof salutes the Washington Monument in the distance. If there were nothing more to the design, by Bing Thom Architects, the nation’s capital could claim a masterstroke of architecture as well as a postcard-worthy icon.

But there’s far more to the three-theater com-plex. Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, which opens October 25, with Barack and Michelle Obama as honorary chairs, is a brilliant blend of new construction and unorthodox preservation. The transparent facade encapsulates two historic theaters designed by the Chicago modernist Harry Weese. The structures are incorporated like oversize objets d’art in a light-filled, multiterraced grand lobby. Also in the enclosure is a tour de force of experimental theater design. The traditional black box has been reinterpreted as an oval “cradle” and lined with acoustically calibrated woven-wood slats. To enter, theatergoers will first journey through a darkened spiral inspired by Richard Serra’s sculpture. “Designing good architectural transitions is sometimes more important than designing the spaces,” Thom says.

Judging by size alone, the 200,000-square-foot, $135 million complex ranks as the most significant cultural venue built in the nation’s capital since the Kennedy Center opened in 1971. By any aesthetic measure, the Mead Center is the city’s most spectacular work of architecture since I. M. Pei’s 1978 East Building for the National Gallery of Art. Just as important to students of urban renewal is that Thom’s humanist design offers both a powerful homage and a needed counterpoint to the coolly modern midcentury visionaries who utterly failed to bring vitality to the Southwest Waterfront. The beleaguered neighborhood is just six blocks, but worlds apart, from the National Mall.

“You can help to reinforce the times or help change the times,” Thom says on a sunny day in August. For more than nine years, the upbeat Hong Kong–born architect has crossed the continent from Vancouver, British Columbia, on a quest to reinvent the 60-year-old stage pioneer’s cramped quarters. He credits Molly Smith, Arena Stage’s artistic director, for articulating a mission worth converting into three dimensions. The regional theater seeks to be a nationally recognized source of “all that is passionate, exuberant, profound, deep and dangerous in the American spirit.”

The architecture was driven by the notion of “dangerous” and a requirement to preserve the Weese theaters, which are protected historic structures in a city that takes history “more seriously than most,” Thom says. The 1961 Fichandler Stage is an impenetrable but dis-tinctive box named for the company founder, Zelda Fichandler. Its in-the-round stage is where James Earl Jones first performed in The Great White Hope. The Kreeger Theater, with a modified thrust stage, was added in 1971. Thom’s solution was to construct an architectural terrarium around them. By eliminating corridors, offices, and a parking lot, and by pushing the footprint to the edge of the two-acre site, Thom gained room for a host of new amenities. Perhaps unintentionally, the new building also creates a hermetically sealed street-scape in which theatergoers, who skew wealthy and suburban, can wander amid Weese’s buildings while safely insulated from the city.

The powerful gatekeepers at the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts took just four meetings to approve the design in 2002. But as an act of preservation, Thom’s approach makes some observers squirm. Thomas E. Luebke, the CFA secretary since 2005 and an architect himself, likes the building but acknowledges discomfort over the idea of “fetishizing the structure.” Suman Sorg, an architect who worked for Weese in the 1980s, drove past the site during the summer and was “flabbergasted” to find the landmarks supplanted by a bell jar. “These were fabulous buildings of their time,” she says. “They could have coexisted instead of being swallowed up.” Sorg recoils at the thought of treating anyone’s buildings “like objects that can be retired.” She has no doubt what Weese, who died in 1998 at the age of 83, would have thought. “Oh my God, he’d turn over in his grave,” she says. “He was very proud of his humanist architecture.”

For his part, Thom believes he acted with respect. The theaters needed to be insulated from jet noise at the nearby National Airport, and Thom saw two alternatives: “Build a new exterior transparent wall enclosing the old and celebrating its historical role as an iconic artifact, or take the whole wall and roof down and rebuild the building … altering its authenticity.” Behind glass, Weese’s architecture “is protected for at least another century,” he says. Thom and Smith begin their tour on the sidewalk, where the Mead Center offers a surreal take on sustainability as adaptive reuse. The outlines of the Weese buildings merge with the reflections of street trees that shaded the theaters for decades. Inside, the colossal lobby is the epicenter of Thom’s rehearsal-hall zeitgeist, with concrete floors, steel-and-glass stairways, and poplar slats overhead to deflect the industrial impact of an exposed ceiling. Smith wanted a single cultural crossroads so patrons of Oklahoma! would rub shoulders with devotees of Edward Albee and experimental theater.

Thom had to persuade city officials that the hybrid wood-and-glass enclosure, the first heavy-timber structure in the capital, would work. Inches from the glass skin, elliptical pillars of Parallam engineered wood are anchored in cast-steel “slippers” spaced 36 feet apart and linked to a system of steel cables that support the roof and curtain wall. The glass “container” also insulates the vintage theaters from the persistent buzz of auto and air traffic.

Smith’s wish list included a third theater, offices, state-of-the-art workshops, teaching and rehearsal facilities, a kitchen for staff, a café catered by José Andrés, rentable party spaces, and underground parking. The center’s namesakes, Gilbert and Jaylee M. Mead, former NASA scientists and fans of the American musical, contributed $35 million. Administration offices are partly belowground, but they’re visible to staff and the public. Smith gives a theatrical wave to pedestrians through a window that allows her to step out onto the sidewalk.

Thom leads the way around the Fichandler, up to an outdoor terrace, across the Kreeger roof to a café overlooking the waterfront, and down to a generous street-level library. Each landing or turning point reveals rooflines of a cityscape that is both indoors and out. For all the dramatic vistas, none compares to the shadowy spiraling approach to the Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle, which is dedicated to nurturing emerging voices of the American theater. A curving 40-foot-tall corridor leads to the 200-seat oval theater. Thom designed the dimly lit journey to make people “lose the memory” of the big, light-filled lobby on a “long walk to nowhere.” Smith calls the experience “sacred.”

The Mead Center is a high-visibility project in the kind of urban-fringe neighborhood that Thom appreciates. Educated in British Columbia and at the University of California at Berkeley, Thom worked for Fumihiko Maki, in Tokyo, and Arthur Erickson, in Vancouver, before establishing his firm in 1982. He prizes his reputation as a master builder and a designer of mixed-use “urban regeneration” projects, which earned him the Order of Canada and the Golden Jubilee Medal. Before seeking the Arena Stage commission, he attended a play and walked the streets.

“This to me was a community that desperately needed hope,” Thom says. It didn’t hurt his chances that an Arena Stage executive had seen Thom’s Chan Centre for the Performing Arts (built in 1997 in Van-couver), which combines three performance venues with a dramatic glass lobby. Thom came up with the most workable plan for the site, which included sloping the lobby two degrees to accommodate an 18-inch difference in thresholds between the two historic theaters. Both structures were renovated and acoustically enhanced. A Weese-era fire escape now serves as a Juliet balcony in the center of the lobby.

One may marvel that the Mead Center was built while other major cultural projects collapsed, including a Frank Gehry design for the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and Rafael Viñoly’s planned entry terrace for the Kennedy Center. Smith stood down every crisis, from 9/11 to the Great Recession. With 85 percent of her fund-raising goal met, she says she believes that “this was destined.”

Still, the budget was slashed by 20 percent as costs soared before ground-breaking in January 2008. The roof cantilever was tamed, fountains dried up, and apartments for playwrights were scrapped, along with half the underground parking. Thom worries that the lack of skylights in the center of the lobby has caged the Kreeger “like a canary.” A glass scrim was planned, to veil the dark and brooding Fichandler roof, which “was never meant to be seen from above.” On the Kreeger roof, Thom points to a dry out-crop of river rocks designed as a water garden. “If we tendered the building today,” he laments, “we would get all the 20 percent back and more.”

Arena Stage has been a pillar of stability in the neighborhood for half a century. It remains ahead of the development curve, but perhaps not by much. Back in the 1950s, planners razed the entire Southwest Waterfront and relocated 23,500 residents to create what the planners of the day surely considered a showcase of 20th-century architecture to lure suburbanites back to the city. The master developer William Zeckendorf brought in Weese, Pei, and others. The architects created clean-lined “superblocks” of residential calm but also disastrously severed the quadrant from the Mall with a freeway. The upstart Arena Stage company was delighted by the offer of a permanent home amid offices, shops, and housing for 4,000 families. But the progressive design experiment faltered, and the promised vibrant neighborhood has remained elusive.

Smith, who arrived in the late 1990s from Perseverance Theater, in Alaska, considered relocating to an emerging in-town cultural district near the Shakespeare Theater. The mayor at the time, Anthony Williams, argued that Arena Stage should remain a cultural linchpin in a massive riverfront-revitalization effort. Planners still promise a magnificent mile of luxury hotels, condos, restaurants, and tall ships along the bleak Washington Channel, opposite the Mead Center. Developers of the latest $1.5 billion master plan say they are at least two years from breaking ground, leaving Arena Stage in the vanguard again.

Thom modestly dismisses any suggestion that the Mead Center will produce a Bilbao Effect. “Success is up to the director and the creative program,” he says. But his expectation of the architecture is clear from his forthcoming monograph, Bing Thom Works, from Princeton Architectural Press. “Like other projects in parts of cities that many people would rather forget, Arena is changing the neighbourhood,” he writes. “These ‘edge’ projects are what we now find most exciting and meaningful, and it is here that the world can change for the better.”

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