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The Kennedy Center expands for the first time since its 1971 debut

The REACH, with three pavilions on a generous lawn, adds openness and light to this performance space.

September 11, 2019 |
Steven Holl Architects, The Kennedy Center expands for the first time since its 1971 debut

An aerial view of The REACH (left, in front of the Kennedy Center), whose three pavilions are connected underground. Images: Richard Barnes, Courtesy of Steven Holl Architects.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C. opened its first-ever expansion on September 7, and is celebrating that opening with 16 days of free programming.

Designed by Steven Holl Architects, The REACH, as the addition is known, is anchored by three pavilions—called Welcome, Skylight, and River—located on more than 130,000 sf of sweeping lawn that overlooks the Potomac River. The buildings are linked below ground to create an expanded facility that includes classrooms, three rehearsal studios, and multiuse public spaces.

The project incorporates engineering features that include a void slab design, a technique rarely used in the U.S., which allowed for the expansion’s dramatic sculptural forms and spacious interiors. Plastic balls are embedded in the concrete to reduce the overall deadweight and allow for longer spans. Arup coordinated closely with the design team to ensure that each component of the building’s systems was effectively woven into the slab system on schedule.


The Link walkway connects the Kennedy Center's main building to the REACH.


To support the architectural vision and ambitious sustainability targets, Arup's team of engineers and consultants collaborated to develop a building systems strategy that optimizes energy performance while remaining largely unseen. For example, an under-floor concrete trench system enables the building services to be distributed out of sightline, thereby preserving the integrity of the architectural vision.

The strategy also incorporates a range of performance-enhancing technologies, from a closed-loop, ground source heat rejection system, to advanced temperature controls and radiant floor heating. Using Arup’s in-house software suite, Oasys Building Environmental Analysis (BEANS), the team demonstrated that the addition of radiant floors would counteract the thermal effects of one of the pavilion’s massive curved wall, providing both heating and cooling and significantly boosting comfort throughout the year while keeping energy demands within acceptable levels.


One of three rehearsal studios at The REACH.


The REACH could be viewed as a counterpoint to the monolithic Kennedy Center, which one architectural critic once disparaged as a “superbunker” with over-the-top interior design elements and few windows. In contrast, the REACH’s 72,000 sf interior space—which include a living theater, immersive learning center, and public arts incubator—present more-open, inviting spaces to visitors and patrons. The addition increases the Kennedy Center’s public-facing areas by 20%, Deborah Rutter, the Center’s president, told Bizjournals.com.

The Whiting-Turner Contracting Company was the construction manager on the project.

The REACH cost an estimated $175 million, 75% over its original construction buddget, and took two more years than planned to complete. Its supporters say that a portion of the extra cost will pay for operations. The Kennedy Center is in the process of raising $250 million in individual and corporate donations for the new facility, which is targeting LEED Gold certification.


The lobby for the Welcome Pavilion, one of three buildings that comprise The REACH.

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