Art within art

Monday 08 Nov 2010

Sculptural expansion to the Mead Center for American Theater opens to rapturous praise

‘Architecture is a sort of stage set for life' explains Principal of Bing Thom Architects (BTA) Michael Heeney, which is a fitting introduction to the firm's newest project, Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater in Washington, DC.

As with many dramatic architectural creations, it is hoped that the Arena Stage project will act as a catalyst for the revitalisation of Southwest Washington, DC. With its 475 ft long sweeping cantilevered roof, insulating glass skin and 18 hefty timber columns, BTA's latest creation is certainly making the desired impact on the local community.

Named one of the ten best recent buildings in Washington, DC by the Urban Land Institute and termed ‘a brilliant blend of new construction and unorthodox preservation' by Metropolis Magazine, Arena Stage was welcomed to the public realm in a festive opening ceremony in late October where President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama leant their support as honorary chairs, and DC Mayor Adrian Fenty and his wife Michelle served as honorary co-chairs.

Over the years Arena Stage has gone from strength to strength. In the early 1950s, the theater first came to life in ‘found space', quickly progressing to an interlocking series of structures - Fichandler Stage, Kreeger Theater and a modest support building, all designed by Washington architect Harry Weese.

BTA's recent addition wraps these three existing structures in a glass curtain wall of 370 individual panes with the inclusion of the new 200-seat Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle Theater, introducing the Center as the second largest performing arts complex in Washington, DC beaten only by Edward Durrell Stone's Kennedy Center.  

As in the theatrical world, visual impact plays a key role in BTA's design. Each of the 18 supporting columns has been constructed using an engineered wood product called Parallam and takes an elliptical shape to reduce the visual effect and give the building a ‘transparent' feel.

In continuation of this theme, all administration areas and passageways between the construction shops and theaters are visible from the street, whilst the internal ‘kitchen' and common room for staff and performers are on show through screened openings to the public lobby.

Architect Bing Thom clarifies: "The design of Arena Stage was inspired by [Artistic Director] Molly Smith's desire for ‘a theater for all that is passionate, exuberant, profound, deep and dangerous in the American spirit'. Together we have created a home for American theater that will allow audiences to interact not just with the art, but also with each other. We are convinced that the positive energy that will come from this building will send ripples - not just throughout Southwest Washington, DC but throughout the region and artistically even further."

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