If you were the U.S. government and wanted to blow $400 million on the arts, what would you do with it? Endow symphony orchestras? Support playwriting competitions? Finance art scholarships? Or would you build a platinum-plated, New Jersey toll plaza and attach it to Washington, D.C.,’s Kennedy Center?
That’s what the government committed itself to in September, and yesterday the center picked the winning design for the expansion by architect Rafael Viñoly.
The government has authorized—but not yet appropriated—the $400 million that would raise a Jersey-style toll plaza over the snarl of freeways and exit and entrance ramps that borders the Kennedy Center on the east. The bib of the toll plaza would extend over the Potomac River to the west and would include an irrigation ditch stretching more than 400 yards down the middle of E Street NW and climaxing in a fountain just about a 7-iron distance from the building’s entrance. Private donors are sought to complete the $250 million financing for construction of the two buildings atop the plaza.
The hometown boosters at the Washington Post, who rarely print a discouraging word about the Kennedy Center, gave the story enthusiastic Page One play and a positive review by architecture critic Benjamin Forgey in the “Style” section (“A Welcome Sign: Design Plan Would Give the Kennedy Center New Connections“). The New York Times offers a more subdued treatment on Page One of “The Arts.”
Yet neither piece applied the sort of skepticism you expect for a $400 million pork-barrel project. While it’s true that the view to the east of the KenCen is esthetically challenged, the current building is extremely accessible. It’s within walking distance from a subway stop (a shuttle bus serves the lazy and infirm), and the hungry maw of the basement parking garage now swallows 2,000 cars at a time. According to the Post, 2 million people breach the moat to attend performances each year, and another 3 million arrive just to visit the structure, which does double-duty as a memorial to John F. Kennedy. Why bill taxpayers $400 million to erase a moderate eyesore that only D.C. residents, commuters, and art mavens ever see?
The second rationale for the toll plaza appears to be the Kennedy Center’s need for 400,000 square feet of new rehearsal, educational, and museum space to supplement the center’s existing 1.5 million square feet. But even folks who applaud federal subsidies of the arts should blush at prospect of building a $400 million oil-platform for new KenCen space—even if the Department of Transportation is springing for it. (That’s assuming the plaza comes in on budget. Boston’s Big Dig was supposed to cost $2.5 billion and soared beyond $14 billion.)
If built according to Viñoly’s design, the New Kennedy Center will create an expensive human dead zone. Except for the 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. performance window, there will be no real reason to linger there. The design includes no plans to add such “third places” as restaurants, bars, retail, or apartments to the expansion that give life to urban environments—which is probably the Kennedy Center’s intention. As with the rest of monumental Washington, the city fathers like to keep the citizenry on a short leash, equating hanging out with unlawful assembly.
But let’s suppose the toll plaza and the buildings are a bargain and the nation’s future depends on them. Isn’t the design a tad reminiscent of something out of Albert Speer? It shares the Kennedy Center’s coldness and its monumental bombast. The Post’s architecture critic hints at the design’s shortcomings in one of the final paragraphs of his praiseful piece: “For sure, not everything about this plan is sweetness and roses. The plaza may be too big and too undifferentiated.” But given that the $650 million project is supposed to remedy the alleged people-hostile design of the Kennedy Center, you’d think that the press might pay a little more attention to how the federally subsidized structure in the core of America’s City will work with people.