The Reach at Kennedy Center Excels Where It Counts—Acoustics

Steven Holl Architects’ detail-oriented way of thinking about acoustics is what makes the Reach, and the myriad spaces within it, so successful.

The Reach at Kennedy Center
Designed by Steven Holl Architects, the Reach at Kennedy Center is an extension to Edward Durell Stone’s 1971 building. Courtesy Richard Barnes/Steven Holl Architects

I first heard about The Reach at Kennedy Center when I was in graduate school studying architectural acoustics. During that time, I was researching concert halls from the 1960s and ’70s, an umbrella under which the original Kennedy Center falls neatly. That concert hall, designed by Edward Durell Stone, is flawed in more ways than one—acoustically (it is too wide and the ceiling too low to generate the spacious warmth associated with the shoebox shape it was based on), structurally (noise from air traffic is a big problem), and urbanistically (it is isolated from the rest of the city and difficult to reach via walking or public transit). 

Designed by Steven Holl Architects (SHA), the Reach is an extension of the Kennedy Center and adds a series of rehearsal and community spaces. It isn’t a new concert hall, so to speak—and to treat it as a concert hall would be misguided. But the need for tailored acoustics and detail-oriented design is just as important for rehearsal spaces, often considered second-class citizens in the performance world and overshadowed by the glamor of concert halls.  Not only did Holl see that this need was met at the Reach, he also broadened his office’s remit, working wonders at both the building and landscape scales.

The innovations of Holl’s design shine through in spite of the tired typology: The creation of an annex for small performances and rehearsals is nothing new in concert hall design. The Musikverein in Vienna expanded in this way in the early 2000s, creating two small performance halls and a large multipurpose rehearsal space. HARPA in Iceland, which was completed in 2011, also features a number of multipurpose lecture, performance, and rehearsal halls. Perhaps the space most analogous to the design thinking of the Reach is the Musiikkitalo in Helsinki Finland, built in 2011, at which education (it is used by the Sibelius Academy), openness, and visual porosity among its spaces are emphasized. Holl himself is not new to music facilities, having completed the Lewis Arts Complex at Princeton University in 2017. 

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Comprising three pavilions, each linked through underground multipurpose spaces, the Reach presents a foil to its monolithic neighbor. Avoiding the pitfalls of that hall weighed heavily on Holl’s mind, as he told me in a July interview: “I think that there’s a misconception that’s carried over from Late Modernism, that a big rectangular all-purpose space is somehow more flexible. . . . ‘What is flexible space?’ It’s great rooms that can be used for many different things.” 

Holl’s goal was to simply make up for this lacuna in the original building and create spaces to be “specific to light and its great proportions, without thinking, ‘Does it have to programmed as this, that, and the other thing.’” However, this downplays the depth of thinking and meticulous execution, especially in the details, that makes these separate spaces into an integrated whole. What connects the spaces within the Reach, as well as to the Kennedy Center and the surrounding area, is the project’s integration into the landscape. Silky white concrete forms weave in and out of the ground, compressing above and expanding underground into one continuous fabric. The Welcome Pavilion connects to the land above and other spaces below via carefully placed windows, skylights, and the languid unfolding of staircases and ramps. 

The Reach at Kennedy Center
The Welcome Pavilion connects to the land above and other spaces below via carefully placed windows, skylights, and staircases and ramps. Courtesy Richard Barnes/Steven Holl Architects

Program certainly played a big part in the sculpting of these spaces. The Skylight Pavilion and the River Pavilion are the most flexible: Both feature projectors and other audiovisual equipment for performance, and the interiors of the rooms are cleverly and subtly sculpted for sound. Holl’s characteristic use of non-parallel room geometry and sloping, sometimes concave wall and ceiling elements, help scatter sound and avoid the pitfalls of unpleasant reflections caused by smooth parallel walls. This enables the spaces to have smooth, seamless geometry without causing acoustical problems. The classrooms and community rooms avoid parallel geometry, and despite their less athletic geometry, the use of light and visual connection to the river outdoors makes them architecturally satisfying. A noteworthy element of the design is how spaces devoted to community events don’t play second fiddle to the rehearsal and performance spaces. 

Make no mistake—sound, equally as much as light, was integral to the entire design approach of the architects. The most lauded of the acoustical solutions is the “crinkle concrete,” concrete textured to look like crinkled tin-foil or paper that features in the Justice Forum, the two dance studios, and the large central rehearsal space. Garrick Ambrose, the architect responsible for the execution of the concept, spoke to me in July of how SHA “wanted the structure to define the space, and since hard parallel walls are bad acoustically, we need to develop a texture that we could emboss into the concrete to break up the sound, diffuse the sound. In our shop, we started experimenting with different textures. . . . [A]nd we had this thick tinfoil material and started casting plaster to it and realizing that it was really intriguing.” 

In the days before architectural acoustics, 19th-century architects mitigated sound through complex ornament, which they applied to a default shoebox hall. With the emergence of acoustics as a science in the mid-20th century, acousticians realized the necessity of diffusive surfaces in avoiding acoustical pitfalls and applied, including in the original Kennedy Center concert hall, textured surfaces more in account with Modernist aesthetics were applied to the sidewalls and ceilings. However, what is most striking about Holl’s crinkle concrete approach—developed with help from Harvey Marshall Berling Associates—isn’t necessarily the texture itself, but how it is deployed. 

Typically, the approach to acoustical textures is as a defensive measure to avoid acoustical flaws, applied rather than integral to the design. Holl’s crinkle concrete walls in the Justice Forum and in other spaces are structural—the crinkle concrete isn’t an appliqué or an afterthought, but rather embedded within the architecture itself. This integral, detail-oriented way of thinking is what makes the Reach, and the myriad spaces within it, so successful. When architects conceive of sound from the beginning of a project rather as a problem to be solved later in the design stage, the results speak for themselves. 

Holl’s team developed a crinkle acoustic concrete for many of the Reach’s performance and practice spaces. Courtesy Richard Barnes/Steven Holl Architects

The consideration of acoustics is seen not only in the Reach’s sculpting of rooms, but also in the very systems—structural and mechanical—that link them together. Holl’s use of weaving above and underground space helps solve a key problem faced by the original Kennedy Center, i.e., noise from air travel landing at National Airport. The ground above the Justice Forum and Studio K—the largest of the rehearsal spaces—acts not only as integrative landscape architecture, but as an insulating mass that shields the most vulnerable spaces from noise from above. 

Another notable detail is the ventilation system. Both the lobby and the performance spaces are heated and cooled by a system called displacement ventilation. Rather than a traditional HVAC system that forces cooled air down from above (creating a potential noise issue), displacement ventilation cools, or warms, the air via an underground plenum, connected to vents on the floor through which the air silently seeps in—as a result, the noise from HVAC is virtually nonexistent. 

Studio K uses a variety of acoustical techniques necessary to the flexibility to a large scale rehearsal and performance space, including the crinkle concrete, a sawtooth-shaped concrete ceiling that helps break up ceiling reflections, and absorptive curtains. Perhaps the most important element of the Reach to its purported goals of inclusiveness and engagement with the community and the landscape is its visual porosity. Windows are difficult for acoustics, as glass is highly reflective without being particularly insulating. However, the dance studios, classrooms, and rehearsal spaces are all able to be viewed from various points from above and below, which not only allows for the sculpting of light, but also avoids a common pitfall with rehearsal spaces, which is their fortress-like nature. All of these windows can be closed off for visual and sonic privacy, but the point of the glass is to open the activities occurring within the spaces to the outside world. This aim requires some vulnerability, but rather than trying to engineer this vulnerability away, the architects and the Kennedy Center itself have embraced it as a testimony to their new outward-facing vision. This is a healthy change in perspective because acoustical leakage in rehearsal spaces is, for the most part, unavoidable. The Justice Forum, windowless, with entry and exit via soundlocks, is the only space configured like a traditional performance space.

When architects conceive of sound from the beginning of a project rather as a problem to be solved later in the design stage, the results speak for themselves.

My favorite part about the Reach, however, is in the detailing. Walls meet ceilings seamlessly; the integration of sprinkler and HVAC systems are almost totally imperceptible; the mechanism for opening and closing the doors to the Skylight Pavilion, and the corner-door of Studio K are lovely touches. The material finishes—ranging from the board-form concrete of the exterior surfaces, the wood-block flooring in the Skylight Pavilion, and the crinkle concrete to the fabrics used in the seats of the Justice Forum and the integration of power outlets both in the walls and the floating benches in the lobbies—are pristine.

The Reach is a lovely, fastidiously built building, but does it succeed at fulfilling its hype, including huge opening festivities? The Kennedy Center, from Edward Durell Stone’s New Formalist architecture right on down to the red carpet and flag-lined interiors, has always been somewhat campy, and even in The Reach’s architectural sophistication, reproducing some of that camp is unavoidable. The “eternal flame” motifs in the Welcome Pavilion and outside the Skylight Pavilion; the sandblasted JFK quotes on the windows of the River Pavilion; and the fact that the three studios are named Studio J, F, and K are some examples of the common thread of Kennedy Kitsch shared between the two buildings.

It would be unfair to expect the Reach to make up for all the Kennedy Center’s deficiencies. After all, what the Reach does is simple: It is an annex to the Kennedy Center that provides classrooms, a few multipurpose rooms that can be used for small performances or events such as gala dinners, a lecture hall, and rehearsal spaces. In these respects, it succeeds. What it cannot do is reinvent institutional  performing arts, expand, or reconcile the Kennedy Center’s role in the increasingly segregated and rapidly gentrifying city of Washington, or fix issues that have always plagued the fine arts: isolation and elitism. In short, while the Reach is certainly a gift to the performers who will use it on a daily basis, it is not a panacea to the broader issues of the institutions—both the Kennedy Center and the broader performing arts as a whole—it aims to serve. 

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