Architects assigned to create an addition to an existing structure often face a delicate task. The original work is revered not only for its history but for its craftsmanship, materials, and quality of design. Happily this was not the case with the $135 million Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater in Washington, D.C. The two theaters at Arena Stage — the 683-seat Fichandler (1961) and the 514-seat Kreeger (1971), both designed by Chicago architect Harry Weese — provided significant theatrical contributions to the nation’s capital. But they could not be described as Weese’s shining moment, on the level of his concrete coffered, vaulted Washington Metro stations that opened in 1976.
It can definitely be said that the 200,000-square-foot Arena Stage, just renovated and expanded by Bing Thom Architects, improves upon what was found. Thom’s swallowing up the lumpy late Modernist theaters in a glass case may have concerned some preservationists, but it helped tie the two together on this triangular site in the southwest part of the city — initially part of an urban renewal area that may be further uplifted by a waterfront redevelopment plan. Yet the overall scheme does deploy some quixotic design gestures that ignore certain notions of scale, proportion, and the use of a consistent architectural vocabulary. But more about that later.