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ArchitectureWeek - Culture Department
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Creating the Kennedy Center

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The opposition to the site for the Kennedy Center was led by Washington Post architectural critic Wolf von Eckardt, who, in a December 1962 article, characterized the center as "an oversized pavilion stuck away in a landscaped maze of highways."

He also added that "no one disputes that the model on display at the National Gallery of Art promises a pretty building," describing it as a "serene rectangular structure" in which "Stone has wisely decided to deemphasize its mass." But Eckardt's fundamental issue with the building was its location; preferring a Pennsylvania Avenue site, he added, "Stone could do a really exciting building or group of buildings there."

Stone meanwhile busied himself with presentations of the project to government officials and cultural groups throughout Washington. Ernie Jacks was part of the design team involved in the production of the presentation drawings, and he recalled the steady stream of presentations that were undertaken:

The word seemed to spread among the chauffeured limousine crowd, and we were deluged with requests for private viewings from various people and groups, most too prominent to ignore. Mr. Stone was in his element with the presentations: always elegant, always at ease, charming each audience with eloquent turns of phrase in his usual warm and gracious manner. His bearing was as much a part of the presentation as the drawings, photographs, and model which he described.

There were presentations to former President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his wife, Mamie, to President Kennedy, and, later, to his wife, Jacqueline. The latter event produced an amusing photograph of Stone caught in a moment of unrestrained admiration for Mrs. Kennedy that still draws laughter among Stone's friends and colleagues.

There were solicitations to foreign governments for gifts to the center. Stone's office was asked to prepare a "laundry list" of items, and Ralph E. Becker, the general counsel for the center, was "put in charge of foreign gifts." In early 1963, at the inducement of President Kennedy, the Italian government donated the white marble that would be used on the project. Some 40 countries would make significant donations. However, with the five-year statutory limit looming in late 1963, less than a third of the necessary $31 million had been raised.

President Kennedy's death at the end of 1963 dramatically altered the underlying rationale for the National Cultural Center. On January 23, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the John F. Kennedy Center Act into law. The law named the cultural center the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and designated it as a "living memorial" to the late president.

However, it was not until July, after extensive partisan opposition, that the necessary supplemental funding of $18.5 million was authorized. Stone's contract was signed in August 1964, and President Lyndon Johnson and Roger Stevens broke ground on the Kennedy Center on December 2, 1964, though actual construction on the site did not begin until a year later, on December 11, 1965. Remarkably, it would take another two months before all of the necessary land for the site was acquired.

Administered by the GSA, the project had some problems with changing costs and contracting disputes. As construction dragged on, denigrating Stone and the Kennedy Center became fashionable among the cultural elite and design cognoscenti. Writer Julius Duscha observed the Washingtonian variation on this trend in detail:

It is still chic to argue at Georgetown or even Bethesda cocktail parties that (a) the Kennedy Center should never have been built; (b) if it had to be built it was put in the wrong place; (c) there should have been three or four smaller buildings rather than one huge 630-foot-long structure; (d) the whole thing smacks of official culture; and (e) who needs it these days...

On the opening of the Kennedy Center in September 1971, architectural critics lined up to deliver the coup de grace. Wolf von Eckardt, after years of inveighing against the Foggy Bottom site, had too much at stake to like anything that he saw. Writing eight years after viewing exactly the same building that he had described as "pretty" and "serene," he joined the critical groundswell that had gathered to rail against anything connected with Edward Stone, describing the structure as a "Brobdingnagian shoebox" and a "clumsy mass."

Others described it as a "white whale" that had "done a great deal of damage" to the "ideal of a national cultural center."

Ada Louise Huxtable too rose to the occasion, describing it as a "superbunker" and writing that "Albert Speer would have approved" and "one more like this and the city will sink." She added, "The center was probably wrong from the start. It was conceived as a giant economy three-in-one package. If it hasn't cost more than three buildings, it certainly hasn't cost less."

But here Huxtable was wrong, and substantially so; in fact, by any established measure, the building cost far less than its counterpart in New York, Lincoln Center. The suggestion that the size of the building was out of character with the city was also a chimera. There are many venerable buildings within a short distance of the Kennedy Center, including the National Gallery of Art and the National Museum of American History, for example, that are substantially larger. Washington is a city of very large public buildings, as anyone taking a cursory look at a map of the city would quickly realize.

Ten years later, writing in The New Yorker on the Center's tenth anniversary, Brendan Gill took a more objective view, observing, "In the comparatively short period of a decade, the Kennedy Center has become indispensable to Washington and, increasingly, to the country as a whole." He added that "its auditoriums were constantly praised, both for the appropriateness of their comparative size and for their admirable acoustics."

Even Wolf von Eckardt, writing shortly after the Center opened, begrudgingly agreed, and offered a retraction of sorts to his opposition: "The critics, including this one, obviously took their nonenthusiasm for Edward Durrell [sic] Stone's design too far." He added that the Center had "become an inspired and inspiring catalyst for the capital's cultural life."

In fact, within ten years of its opening, Gill wrote, the Center had "become one of the three most popular sites in the capital" and had "entered the consciousness of the entire country."

Editor's note: It is challenging to accurately grasp the essence of Edward Durell Stone. Stone designed significant buildings of lasting greatness, as well as works with aspects that have not stood the test of time so successfully. He was a brilliantly talented designer and in-person communicator, with those great strengths undercut perhaps by a less robust underlying theoretical framework (in architecture and in life, it seems), leaving him both capable of sublime results, and vulnerable at times to producing insufficient or superficial responses. Our opportunity today is to learn from his particular design successes.   >>>

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Hicks Stone, the youngest son of architect Edward Durell Stone, is a practicing architect in New York City. He received a bachelor of arts from Hamilton College, studied architectural history at MIT, and received a master of architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. He worked as a project manager and senior designer for Stephen L. Faulk and Associates and for Philip Johnson & John Burgee Architects before founding his own firm, Stone Architecture, in 1991.

This article is excerpted from Edward Durell Stone: A Son's Untold Story of a Legendary Architect by Hicks Stone, copyright © 2011, with permission of the publisher, Rizzoli.

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Criticism of the project before and after its opening in 1971 notwithstanding, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., designed by Edward Durell Stone, is a highly regarded icon of the capital city today.
Photo: Kevin Matthews/ Artifice Images Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

On the east bank of the Potomac River, just up river from the Lincoln Memorial, and marking the northwest corner of the Washington, D.C. ceremonial and government center, the Kennedy Center is a landmark by day and night.
Photo: Kevin Matthews/ Artifice Images Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

This plan view of a cutaway building model shows the realized parti of the Kennedy Center, organized around three main performance halls: from left to right, the Concert Hall, the Opera House, and the Eisenhower Theater.
Photo: Louis Checkman/ Edward Stone Office Archives Extra Large Image

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SUBSCRIPTION SAMPLE

Edward Durell Stone's U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, India opened in 1959, preceeding the design of the Kennedy Center. The rectilinear, symmetrical embassy form with slender columns, referencing classical temple motifs via modern variations, is a precursor to the serene immensity of the Kennedy Center.
Photo: Courtesy Edward Stone Office Archives Extra Large Image

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Ground-floor plan drawing of the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi.
Image: Edward Durell Stone Extra Large Image

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Ed Stone designed staff residences near the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, which share design motifs with the embassy building, and similarly show climatically-appropriate expressions.
Photo: Courtesy Edward Stone Office Archives

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Edward Durell Stone: A Son's Untold Story of a Legendary Architect by Hicks Stone.
Image: Rizzoli Extra Large Image

 

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