Changing the face of Washington

A number of Canada’s top architects have been leaving their mark on the American capital


Changing the face of Washington
Bing Thom Architects/ Diamond Schmitt


Washington likes its buildings imposing, their walls stone-solid—and the activities inside concealed and guarded 24-7. The city’s century-old height limit preserves the iconic views of the Capitol at the cost of imposing a bulky and boxy shape on most large buildings, from concrete government complexes to cookie-cutter condo developments. But lately, a stream of Canadian architects have been bringing a different touch.

On Oct. 25 the American capital will see the gala opening of the biggest new cultural complex since the Kennedy Center opened in 1971: the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theatre, built on the Washington waterfront by Vancouver-based Bing Thom Architects. President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle are the honorary chairs of the event.

The 200,000-sq.-foot complex is in many ways a very un-Washington building. Instead of imposing, it is playful. Instead of opaque, it is wrapped in a curving wall of 35,000 sq. feet of transparent glass. In the place of neoclassical columns that adorn so much of the city’s official architecture, there is a decidedly West Coast feature: five-metre wood columns—made by B.C.-based StructureCraft Builders out of Parallam, a material engineered from strands of the province’s Douglas firs—that rise around the building like streamlined totem poles supporting an expansive cantilevered roof. To build the unique structure, the architects said they had to prove the material’s strength and fire resistance, and get a local building code amendment. The elliptical beams, a metre in diameter, taper as they near the floor—making the columns seem lighter, as if giant trees had put on ballet shoes and risen up en pointe. “I’m very proud of it because we need to look at using wood in new ways,” said Bing Thom in an interview, adding, “We have this memory of the timber war with the U.S.—this is the Canadian revenge.”

Early in his career, Thom worked on the early stages of Arthur Erickson’s Canadian Embassy building that stands on the ceremonial route between the Capitol and the White House. That building mixed modernism with a fanciful take on Washington’s traditional architecture. Since then, more Canadian architects have been making their mark. In 2004, the National Museum of the American Indian was opened on the National Mall, across from the Capitol. The curving structure, reminiscent of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, was initially designed by Alberta-born native architect Douglas Cardinal. In 2007, Sidney Harman Hall, which houses Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company, opened to acclaim; it was designed by Toronto architect Jack Diamond, who designed Toronto’s new Opera House and Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre.

Moshe Safdie, the Israeli-Canadian architect, designed the headquarters of the Bureau of Tobacco and Firearms, which opened in 2008, and the headquarters of the National Institute of Peace, which is rising on a choice piece of land overlooking the National Mall and the Potomac River. To be opened next year, it features a striking roof in the shape of a soaring white dove. And another contribution to monumental Washington is under way. Toronto-born Frank Gehry has been chosen to build a monument to president Dwight Eisenhower. It is to include huge tapestries made of woven metal.

Thom’s wooden columns, which work in a bow configuration with steel tension cables, were not the only innovation in the US$135-million Arena Stage project. The Arena theatre company had a major problem: how to save its two existing, aging theatres without demolishing them. Built in 1961, in the low-slung concrete “brutalist” style by the same designer who designed Washington metro stations, they had played a role in theatre history. The 683-seat Fichandler theatre, with a central stage that gives it the feeling of a boxing ring, was America’s first desegregated regional theatre, one that gave its start to James Earl Jones and other actors. But it was poorly soundproofed, and in the middle of a play the audience might hear buses whizzing by, sirens from a motorcade, planes approaching Reagan National Airport, or even the presidential helicopter coming down the Potomac. While other architects suggested bulldozing the old theatres or moving them elsewhere, Thom’s solution was simply to envelop them completely with a new building.

The seats in the Fichandler were reupholstered, and the concrete walls merely washed with soap and water. Reflectors were installed on the ceiling to bounce voices back to the audience. Likewise, the company’s other theatre, the 514-seat Kreeger Theater, was given better acoustics and new upholstery. A spacious new lobby, box offices, administrative offices, cafeteria, and set-building spaces rose around and in between the historic structures. The entire complex was spanned by one enormous roof. “My idea was we should not walk away from the past,” said Thom, whose Canadian creations include the Chan Centre for Performing Arts in Vancouver.

The Arena design mixes past with future by adding a new experimental studio theatre—but one that dispenses with the traditional stark “black box” shape for an unusual elliptical form. Called the Kogod “Cradle,” it is meant to be a place where new plays and actors can, literally, be raised and nurtured. Rather than entering the intimate space from the spacious lobby, the design forces theatregoers to wander up a spiralling ramp the length of a football field, whose progressively increasing soundproofing slowly leaves behind the din of the public spaces, and carries them into the womblike Cradle, whose walls are lined with undulating slats of poplar that help diffuse sound.

While Thom doesn’t see a particular style that unites all of the proliferating Canadian-designed projects that are remaking the face of Washington, he does see a “Canadian sensitivity” to working with clients and surrounding communities. His theatre complex is transparent and open to the public throughout the day, rather than only at performance time. “In the U.S., private property is defended so rigorously, whereas in Canada there is a softer division between public and private. Maybe we are more socially conscious of the intermingling of the public and private realm,” he said. Whatever the case, Thom is not finished with Washington. His next project is to convert an abandoned high school into a museum for the celebrated Rubell family collection of contemporary art, just a few blocks from the Arena Stage.