Rendering from Roosevelt Island

The Kennedy Center yesterday unveiled an expansion plan to build 3 new pavilions, including one in the Potomac River, along with pedestrian bridges across Rock Creek Parkway and to the east. The project would partly alleviate some of the Kennedy Center’s 1960s urban design errors.

It connects the 1.5 million-square-foot arts center to the river, as its designers originally imagined, and as many have proposed since. The addition will principally house the center’s extensive music education classes, although it includes rehearsal space and some smaller performing spaces.

Designed by the office of New York architect Steven Holl, the $100 million plan consists of 3 pavilions. Two rest on top of a 3-story plinth, and the other one sits on a floating platform in the Potomac.  Bridges will span Rock Creek Parkway to connect the landside and riverside sections, finally connecting the massive balcony of the Kennedy Center to the ground.


Overhead view showing the three pavilions on a low plinth. Image from Steven Holl Architects.


The plinth is the key to the project, allowing the architects to connect the addition to the new building without degrading Edward Durell Stone’s marble box. Holl used a similar scheme to add a large addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City. Blending this plinth into the onramps of the Roosevelt Bridge creates the appearance that it is part of the landscape, with small objects on top of it.  The plinth is stepped down on the land side, to let light in to the rehearsal spaces and create privacy amid the highway mess. 

Down the ramps, the riverside pavilion will house a stage for small performances. Located right on the Rock Creek multi-use trail, it would break up a loud, boring stretch of the trail. Passers-by might find a show to linger at. Parents could bring kids to music classes by bike, then enjoy time to themselves without getting back into cars. Importantly, it connects the project to the Georgetown waterfront, meaning that a night at the opera might be more pedestrian.

It does not, by any means, eliminate the Kennedy Center’s isolation, which comes from the I-66 spur that cuts a deadening trench into Foggy Bottom. However, lightly noted in one of Holl’s watercolors is a pedestrian bridge to an unspecified destination. This might be the missing piece that would make the expense worth it.

Such a bridge would make the Kennedy Center accessible by foot from both sides. But it would have to be executed as well as the river-side connectors. If the bridge is not kept busy with activity somehow, like the floating pavilion does, it will not be well-used.


Rafael Viñoly’s plan to create a public square was cancelled in 2005. Courtesy Rafael Viñoly Architects.


The plan is considerably more modest than the previous expansion plan by Rafael Viñoly, which would have cost $650 million but patched together the urban fabric on E Street. Although this plan does not preclude that more ambitious project in the future, it fulfills some of aims of that design.

Therefore, this plan also opens the site up to more audacious rethinking of the Center’s location in the city. For example, replacing the highway to nowhere with a high-capacity boulevard and filling in blocks recovered from the project would reduce the need for a multi-million dollar deck and expensive structural systems.

This new building looks to positively alter the riverbank, aesthetically and functionally. It is a positive step forward that avoids the pitfalls of a grandiose scheme. However Holl’s design evolves, by the intended completion in 2018, could be the first phase of rethinking Foggy Bottom as a more human-scale environment and reconnecting DC’s arts center to the rest of the city.