As the renovation project’s construction team has begun building amazing new spaces for exhibitions and programs for the public, teacher workshops, collaborative research, and more, Folger Director Michael Witmore, the project architect Stephen Kieran of KieranTimberlake, and Anneliza Kaufer, an associate at the landscape architecture firm OLIN, recently had the chance to discuss the architectural vision for the entire project.
This summer, the Folger partnered with Washington’s National Building Museum on The Playhouse, featuring Folger Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream on a custom-built stage inside of the museum’s vast interior space. Given the major renovation project that is now underway at the Folger, it was also the perfect time for a panel discussion about the project as part of the museum’s “Spotlight on Design” series. Here are just a few highlights from a fascinating presentation. You can also explore the entire event below.
What led to the renovation?
The Folger is a magnificent, historic 90-year-old building. It opened on the date that Shakespeare’s birthday is usually celebrated, April 23, in 1932, with President Herbert Hoover in attendance and many other eminent guests. What led to the current renovation project? Folger Director Michael Witmore describes the challenges and the solution.
Folger Director Michael Witmore: Now we are building, and we have a chance to talk to Stephen Kieran, the architect who really thought this through with us and inspired us, and to Anneliza Kaufer, who has come from OLIN to help us understand how the landscape is part of this project. My role here is to say a few words about the why, because the how is coming. Here’s the why:
When I arrived in 2011, the Folger had so many strengths, but one of the weaknesses was that its physical building and infrastructure really weren’t prepared to put together the pieces of our mission. We’re a world-class research library. We train teachers. We do exhibition work. We perform on the first permanent Elizabethan stage in the United States. When you look at our building, which continues to inspire me, you see a really wonderful mix of the monumental—it’s in the viewscape of the US Capitol, it’s made of white marble—and in a way, the domestic, with an interior designed to mimic some of the great English country houses. But we also knew the building was an obstacle, in terms of the access it provides to our visitors, both physically (it is a physically inaccessible space—we’re changing that), but also in terms of the perception of the degree to which this was a public place that you could come and visit.
The major east-west access, which is the Great Hall, was often shut; it was shut for at least a month or more a year, making the building impassable. And that space, which was designed with sweeping windows, was our only rare book and manuscript exhibition space. It is a terrible idea to expose light-sensitive books and manuscripts to bright daylight, and so those windows were covered in linoleum. That was not a good long-term solution. We also required more space, including more room for public engagement and for vital work behind the scenes.
“What we’re doing with this work is to make it anew for a new time and a new age, so that it can go forward. It is a living memorial to Shakespeare, with all the complexity that comes with those ideas of memory—which we all tend to view as stable, but it is not—and life.”
Architect Stephen Kieran
What we really needed was a solution that opened the Folger and made it unambiguously welcoming, but also connected our spaces and provided the ability to show our collection in appropriate spaces.
And this was Steve Kieran’s insight: Could you take the landscape and pass it through the building, so that there is one continuous journey that’s going from the corner of our site all the way through into the heart of our exhibitions? It was an elegant and simple idea, and it won the day. It involves east and west entrances through the landscape into a new set of public galleries in a pavilion space, which will welcome our visitors, but will also allow us to exhibit hundreds of rare books and manuscripts.
Connecting with Cret
As with any historic renovation, the changes to the building were, in effect, a conversation with the work of the original architect, Paul Cret, a French immigrant to the United States who taught for many years at the University of Pennsylvania.
Architect Stephen Kieran: Cret is a very hugely admired predecessor where I come from in Philadelphia—the teacher of Louis Kahn and many other remarkable architects and a great architect in his own right. What we’re doing with this work is to make it anew for a new time and a new age, so that it can go forward. It is a living memorial to Shakespeare, with all the complexity that comes with those ideas of memory—which we all tend to view as stable, but it is not—and life.
The idea of renewal here is to add a building underneath the building. And if you look carefully at the diagram here, you’ll see a section of the Great Hall, along with the library. And beneath that, we’re basically hollowing out a new building that extends out to East Capitol Street underneath the plinth of the original building. That is the fundamental design intervention.
The big move that Michael described is really simple, as all wonderful design solutions ultimately are. It is basically to carry the landscape from the corners—the east and west corners of East Capitol Street on the Library of Congress side and on the more residential side to the east—into, under, around, and through the whole of the new addition, welcoming the public through this landscape and building-scape into the world of William Shakespeare.
The Folger is now a collection of remarkable rooms—the Great Hall, the theater, the library itself, and the Founders’ Room, all remarkable individual rooms in their own right. It’s a building of rooms and of interiors. And we, with OLIN, thought of our work as a suite of new rooms. The rooms begin out in the landscape to either side. They welcome you and bring you gently down into a suite of interior rooms that include two major new exhibition halls.
We believe that the conversation with Cret is a rich one. The rooms are interconnected; they add to, not change, each other. They expand the story, not contract the story. That’s what great renovation is. It’s about a conversation across time with admired predecessors, expanding their work for new times and new audiences.
The Landscape and Its Open Rooms
OLIN, the landscape architecture firm, was an essential part of fulfilling that vision. Associate Anneliza Kaufer describes how the landscape welcomes visitors and draws them into the space.
Anneliza Kaufer, Associate at OLIN: From the landscape perspective, we approached this as an essential and integral part of the design. We also drew inspiration from Shakespearean writings that refer to landscapes, describing the environment in vivid detail.
This is, in plan, the sequence of rooms that Stephen referenced. Starting on the west side of the site with the west garden and moving to the east garden, connected through with the exhibition space below, with the idea of these meandering paths through the garden that bring you into the space. A lot of the plants are native plants with seasonal interest, but we pulled some cues from Shakespeare with plants that are specifically referenced—so these are Easter eggs that someone might find as they move through the garden.
We took a lot of cues from Elizabethan gardens. This is a garden panel with very vibrant texture and color, and there is also this element of water at the base near the entrance. The sound of the water pulls you in, saying, Welcome, come down, and enter. The Puck statue is integrated with the upper pool, and the water cascades from it.
On the west side, we’re incorporating a small lawn area. All of this has been opened up and feels like a public, open threshold for the community at large and also the visitors. This view is really helpful to show the suite of rooms that are part of the exterior experience. We’ve got the garden room, and then the lawn panel, to sit in the shade or have a picnic, and then the magnolia. And this shows the plinth, and then the east garden beyond—a suite of rooms, welcoming to all of the visitors who can experience the Folger.
Michael Witmore: Thank you, Stephen and Anneliza. It’s so great to hear you talk about the project and all those words that have an “re” in front of them: to renew, to renovate. And we also need to restate and renew our sense of what these stories can do—who can perform them, what audiences can take part in those performances and be inspired by them.
Those are hugely important things, and we need to use Shakespeare, not so much as a monument, but a doorway that many more people can walk through. So that’s the journey, and we want people to walk with us. I do think there are more doorways to walk through, and I’m really looking forward to the day when we all get to walk through the doors in the Folger building with thanks and hopefulness.