Kennedy Center Pavilions Outshine Competition for ACI Excellence Award

An aerial view of the Kennedy Center and its new pavilions that grace the grounds
Since September 2019, three bright-white structures have lit up the Washington, D.C., cityscape. Namely they are (from left) the River, Skylight and Welcome pavilions. Built as extensions of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (far right), The Reach features complex geometric-shaped pavilions of cast-in-place ultra-high-performance concrete. To achieve the brilliant white exposed concrete finish, Aalborg White cement was mixed with white sand, light-colored aggregate and titanium dioxide. The expansion project netted the 2020 Overall Excellence Award from the American Concrete Institute. Photo by Richard Barnes, courtesy of ACI

Featuring architectural concrete of utmost quality, three pavilions exquisitely extend the presence of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Aptly called The Reach, the inviting trio in Washington, D.C., consists of the Welcome, Skylight and River pavilions.

A watercolor mock-up of The Reach expansion at the Kennedy Center
The Reach expansion, designed by Steven Holl Architects, is a “living memorial” to President John F. Kennedy. With access via the new pedestrian bridge across Rock Creek Parkway, the expansion also adds a wide range of flexible indoor and outdoor spaces for public events and art enrichment opportunities. Watercolor courtesy of Steven Holl Architects

“The buildings are strikingly white,” says Yvonne Nelson, then the formwork manager for Lane Construction, the project’s concrete subcontractor. “There are sunny days when you need sunglasses on to look at them.”

The expansion with its beautiful finish, geometrically graceful curves and demanding high-strength performance has received numerous accolades. Among them is the 2020 Overall Excellence Award from the American Concrete Institute. ACI selected the project because it best united creative techniques with innovative technologies.

On the inside of this sprawling complex, the Reach’s 72,000 square feet delivers open studios, rehearsal, performance and also educational spaces. The three pavilions, situated on a 4.6-acre campus along the Potomac River, are interconnected below grade under a green roof.

A board finish

The pavilions’ bright-white façades appear smooth from a distance, rising transcendent above the center’s south lawn. However, up close visitors can appreciate a wood-grain finish made from forms lined with tongue-in-groove planks of Douglas fir.

Form Lined Tongue and groove concrete planks created this expansive wall at the Kennedy Center The wood-look concrete planks made to mimic douglas fir were formed from concrete
Forms lined with tongue-in-groove planks of Douglas fir created the woodgrain finish on the three pavilions’ exterior walls. Seen here is The Skylight Pavilion. Photo courtesy of Peri Formwork Systems Inc.

“The exterior walls of each structure feature titanium-white board-formed concrete, sweeping curves and clean crisp lines that complement the existing monument,” Nelson says. Instead of a curing compound, the subcontractors coated the surface with Thompson’s WaterSeal. This is a waterproofing agent typically used on wood floors, she adds.

Getting it white

Getting the mix design right was of primary importance, emphasizes Nelson. The project not only involved complex geometry featuring high-strength performance but also the added requirement of producing exacting finishes. It also had to match color and optimize design formwork pressures for the self-consolidating mix. They tried different iterations of white sand, light-colored aggregate, titanium dioxide and Aalborg White portland cement supplied by Lehigh White Cement Co. before landing on the right combination.

It turned out to be the perfect medium for this project. “Not only could the white concrete be used to create the asymmetrical shapes and various textures envisioned by the architect, but it could also emulate the white color of the marble on the original structure,” Nelson explains.

The white mix was used for all exterior walls, fulfilling both structural and architectural roles. Whereas many of the inside walls were painted, she says, the outer walls featured the white color of the cast-in-place concrete.

Another of the Kennedy Center buildings - The River Pavilion The Welcome Pavilion at the Kennedy Center
The River and Welcome pavilions’ conical roofs were achieved with a mixture of shotcrete made with white sand, light-colored aggregate, titanium dioxide and Aalborg White cement. Photos courtesy of Peri Formwork Systems Inc.
Shotcrete application

In addition to the cast-in-place walls, the  concrete mix with Aalborg White cement was also used as shotcrete. “The project has some challenging conical roofs,” says Nelson. The Welcome and River pavilions both feature conical roofs, along with curved walls and vaulted ceilings.

“We spent many hours figuring out how to place the two layers of concrete in the conical roofs. And we were unsure if shotcrete was going to provide an acceptable finish on this project,” she recalls.

Ultimately, the conical roofs were placed using a combination of formed and shotcrete placement methods with a waterproofing membrane in between the two layers. Using shotcrete enabled them to produce a hand-smooth finish and also follow the roof’s curvature to form a consistent shape. In addition, the color was perfect.

The construction of the Kennedy Center's Reach A large crane erected to help with the construction of the Kennedy Center.
For the curved walls, Peri Formwork Systems produced special 3-D forms. In addition to custom-made forms, the company also supplied numerous tried-and-tested formwork systems for the project. Photos courtesy of Peri Formwork Systems Inc.
Crowning achievement

The Skylight Pavilion, Nelson acknowledges, is the project’s crowning achievement with a 145-foot-long, 42-foot-tall “curling” wall on one side. Peri Formwork Systems Inc. produced much of The Reach’s formwork, including a specialized 3-D form for the wall and several tried-and-tested systems. Peri used a CNC machine in Germany to cut the gussets for the single-use formwork. The unique formwork sections were then fabricated in the U.S. and shipped to the site.

The Skylight’s feature wall was formed in three 145-foot-long by 14-foot-tall lifts with placement made from the top. The project team originally contemplated pumping the concrete from the bottom of the forms. However, following several mockups and concrete pressure trials, the team determined that top placement would produce the desired finish. This method would also reduce the overall cost and minimize the design pressure requirements of the formwork system.

The Kennedy Center Pavilions Skylight Pavilion with a reflecting pool to capture the expanse of the grounds and the sky.
The “curling” wall of the Skylight Pavilion (in the foreground) and the Welcome Pavilion beyond create striking imagery at dusk. Photo by Jeff Beane, courtesy of ACI

A slotted roof atop the curved wall lets in natural light and creates an elegant gathering space. On the backside, audiences can watch live or recorded video of performances projected outdoors for all to see for free.

A shot of the Kennedy Center Pavilions at night with a video projected onto one of the walls
The Reach’s open landscape provides ample space for visitors to gather and visit throughout the day into the evening. On occasion, projections of live performances from within the Kennedy Center are simulcast onto the Skylight Pavilion’s north wall. Spread across 130,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor space, The Reach’s overall capacity is 5,000. Photo by Richard Barnes, courtesy of ACI
Snap, ‘crinkle,’ pop

Nelson reveals her favorite aspect of The Reach is the “crinkle” concrete lining the walls of both the rehearsal and performance spaces. Guaranteeing excellent sound quality indoors, 11,570 square feet of the 3-inch-deep profile diffuses sound, breaks up sound waves and also mitigates echoes with its random folds. The bottom line is that multiple events can take place simultaneously, each with excellent acoustics without disturbing the other.

Steven Holl, The Reach’s architect, came up with crinkle concrete’s unique form pattern by bending sheets of metal. Subsequently, he worked with Fitzgerald Formliners and Form Services Inc. to transfer the irregular pleated textures to elastomeric form liners. The 4-by-10-foot formliners were then placed in a staggered bond pattern. Together with Aluma Systems’ beam gang system, they formed the 22-foot-tall cast-in-place walls of the interior performance spaces.

Overall, the crinkle concrete walls offer several benefits. First off, they are both decorative and sound enhancing. They also serve as primary structure supports for the portion of the buildings where they reside. The brilliant use of both texture and light combines to create a warm and inviting atmosphere to this monumental project.

Kennedy Center Pavilions performance space with a concrete crinkle wall dancers in front of a concrete crinkle wall at the Kennedy Center Pavilions rehearsal space
Acoustically effective and aesthetically brilliant, crinkled concrete directly incorporates its visual and sound-enhancing qualities with structural cast-in-place concrete walls. Photos by Richard Barnes, courtesy of ACI

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