Taking the Stage

PROJECT Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, Washington, DC
ARCHITECT Bing Thom Architects
TEXT Deborah K. Dietsch
PHOTOS Nic Lehoux, unless otherwise noted

Vancouver architect Bing Thom’s dramatic transformation of Washington, DC’s Arena Stage is an impressive achievement in a conservative city still enamored of Neoclassicism. Thom managed to impress the capital’s finicky design review boards and stay the course of the nine-year project through value engineering and cost-cutting of about 20 percent. 

His $135-million expansion of Arena Stage, opened last October, adds architectural sparkle to a run-down neighbourhood on the southwestern fringe of the city. Sinuous curves of glass, giant timbers and a jaunty, cantilevered roof exude a playfulness rarely seen in the uptight capital. 

“The design is rooted in my belief that Washington people take themselves too seriously with their rigid and tightly controlled buildings,” Thom says. The revamped Arena Stage is the second theatre to be recently completed by a Canadian in Washington, following Diamond and Schmitt’s elegant new home for the Shakespeare Theatre Company in the city’s downtown core. 

In expanding the regional theatre, Thom didn’t completely break free from Washington’s reverence for history. The 200,000-square-foot complex, now called the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, is as much a preservation project as a new building. Its transparent enclosure acts as the equivalent of a terrarium in displaying relics from Arena Stage’s past–two theatres designed by Chicago architect Harry Weese, who is better known for the soaring vaults of Washington’s Metro stations. 

Weese configured the 1961 Fichandler Stage (named for one of Arena’s founders, Zelda Fichandler) as a theatre-in-the-round where actor James Earl Jones performed The Great White Hope before the play went to Broadway. The Kreeger Theater was added in 1971 to provide a modified thrust stage within an intimate hall. Both are considered groundbreaking designs that helped Arena, the first racially integrated theatre in the city, to win the first Regional Theatre Tony Award.

Proud of this history, the theatre’s board decided to leave its heritage in place rather than forge ahead with an entirely new building. “It didn’t make sense to start over because both the theatre spaces are unique and work beautifully by creating a great relationship between the audience and the actors,” says Molly Smith, artistic director of Arena Stage, who now works in an office visible from the sidewalk. 

Thom embraced the idea, having previously combined three venues in a similar fashion at the 1997 Chan Centre for the Performing Arts in Vancouver. He also drew on his experience of using an atrium to connect a university complex and an office building to an aging shopping mall outside the city. Such combinations of new and old are seen by the architect as requisite for sustainable architecture. “There is nothing more important than sustaining our history,” he says. “New is not always better.” 

However, in this case, the new is a lot better. Weese’s no-frills theatres appear clunky and incongruous within the lightness of Thom’s swirling lobby. Their dated architecture of buff brick and cast concrete only weighs down the flowing spaces around them. 

Removed from its original context, the polygonal Fichandler bears an uncanny resemblance to a Pizza Hut especially from a second-level café where its sheet-metal hipped roof dominates the view. The brick curve of the Kreeger, on the other hand, practically disappears under the dining space. Weese, who died in 1988, would have been mortified to see his architecture torn apart and floating in the new building like islands. 

Arena Stage’s veneration of the vintage structures comes across as a failure of nerve to move forward with an entirely new design reflective of its evolving mission. It might also be seen as representing the revival mania dominating Broadway and the theatre world these days (Arena debuted its new facilities by staging the 1943 musical Oklahoma). 

Fortunately for patrons, the acoustics and sightlines within the old theatres have been improved for the better. Thom closed off the upper-level boxes inside the 683-seat Fichandler and reduced the original number of seats by about 200 for a greater sense of intimacy. In the 514-seat Kreeger, he removed a staircase connecting the orchestra and mezzanine levels, and transferred the stairs to the outside so that the back wall is closer to the audience. 

Rising above the existing theatres is the most exciting new space in the building. With only 200 seats, the Kogod Cradle is small but powerful. Thom designed this third venue to support experimental works and, at last, advance Arena’s theatrical agenda. 

Instead of creating the typical black box, the architect configured the theatre as an oval. He took inspiration from Smith’s cupped hands while she explained her concepts for the Cradle as well as the mysterious beauty of Richard Serra’s large sculptures. The passageway leading into the new theatre emulates Serra’s torqued ellipses through tilting and curving walls, but their surfaces of poplar strips soothe rather than threaten as in the artist’s enclosures of rolled steel. 

Inside the auditorium, the wood slats on the walls bend outward and inward to control the acoustics while creating the feeling of sitting inside a large basket. The floor sits on 20 isolation pads, each the size of a shoebox, to ensure acoustic quality. Actors enter from tall doorways at the rear of the hall and no curtain divides them from the audience. 

The Cradle anchors one end of the lobby designed by Thom as a stage for patrons. Broadly curving staircases, a glass-enclosed elevator and poplar-slatted ceilings animate the space under the big roof extending over the vintage theatres. Colourful carpets designed by the architect’s wife Bonnie Thom enliven the sloping concrete floors extending throughout the open space like a rising tide of water.

Marching around the glass perimeter are 18 tapered columns made of engineered wood that both hold up the roof and support the glass skin through struts and cables. Forming the first heavy timber structure in the capital, they introduce the Pacific Northwest flavour of Thom’s Vancouver to warm the space. Each column rests on a beautifully detailed steel connection reflecting a high level of craft.

For all its transparency, the grand lobby doesn’t engage the neighbourhood in a direct way apart from putting theatre patrons and their activities on display. The prominent space at the building’s glassy corner functions as a library-meeting room that is inaccessible to the public except on special occasions. The café now resting on top of the Kreeger would have been better placed in this ground-level location to create an active presence on the street.

Still, to his credit, Thom has turned what had been an inward-focused theatre complex into an inviting cultural centre full of unexpected surprises. A trip to the women’s washroom reveals a window centered on a view of the Washington Monument. Rehearsal halls, production areas and offices are cleverly tucked around the big lobby to bring artistic and administrative departments together for the first time in Arena Stage history. Scenery can now be wheeled from workshops right onto the stages. 

At night, the building lights up like a beacon amidst its aging mid-20th-century surroundings. Back in the 1950s, the city cleared the “slums” in this area of southwest DC to build apartment blocks designed by I.M. Pei and others for developer William Zeckendorf. Arena Stage became the cultural anchor of this major urban renewal project and now serves as a prototype for a future wave of development being planned around it. Tho
m sets a precedent for this neighbourhood revitalization with his theatrical collage, offering a fresh dose of contemporary design in a city too used to the pompous and prosaic. CA

Deborah K. Dietsch, a freelance writer based in Washington, DC, covers architecture and design for various publications.

Client Arena Stage
Architect Team Bing Thom, Michael Heeney, James Brown, Brian Ackerman, John Camfield, Venelin Kokalov, Ling Meng, Michael Motlagh, Francis Yan, Harald Merk, Berit Wooge, Bibianka Fehr, Dan Du, Nicole Hu, Robert Sandilands, Bonnie Thom, Amirali Javidan, Shinobu Homma, Derek Kaplan, Marcos Hui, Rose Chung
Structural Fast + Epp
Mechanical Yoneda & Associates
Mechanical Design/Build Southland Industries
Electrical Stantec in association with Vanderweil Engineers
Civil Wiles Mensch Corporation
Interiors Bing Thom Architects
Lighting William Lam
Acoustic Talaske
Theatre Fisher Dachs Associates
Elevator Vertech
Contractor Clark Construction
Construction Manager KCM
Area 200,000 ft2 gross
Budget $100 M
Completion October 2010