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lisa rochon: cityscapes

Architectural time travel always exhilarates me. One minute, I'm walking along Washington's National Mall, where ancient Rome and masses of marble were mined to ennoble America's capital.

Ten minutes later, I pull up to an exuberant, life-giving piece of West Coast architecture that poses monumental columns of Douglas fir behind a dramatic curved wall of glass. No pillaging of the classical history books here.

The Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, by Vancouver-based Bing Thom Architects, rises up from the once-troubled neighbourhood of southwest Washington like a flag of hope. Mere blocks from derelict housing projects and a shuttered high school, Arena's white roof canopy cuts a sexy, brazen figure. For two centuries, Washington's tradition of beaux-arts architecture has been heavily anchored to the ground. It took a Canadian architect to design something that looks like clouds in graphic action: swirling and undulating. Clouds that come to a knife's edge, then disappear.

Capture and release. That's what the Arena Stage, constructed for $100-million (U.S.), does to its actors, its audiences and its local community. With one masterful gesture, Bing Thom has captured two existing theatres - the Fichandler (1961) and the Kreeger (1971) - underneath a steel-and-truss roof measuring some 140 metres long.

Standing on the sidewalk, which wraps around a prominent corner site, you can see inside to the original, impermeable brick-faced theatres behind the glass, captured as modern relics from the past, now thoughtfully restored and updated. Next to what is effectively a big glass drum stands a smaller one, faced in artfully poured concrete, containing a new experimental theatre called the Kogod Cradle. Lobby spaces move gracefully up and around the three theatres; natural light floods the carpentry and costume-design shops, once relegated to the dim underground.

I want to get inside the Cradle, but finding the entrance requires a journey. From the main interior lobby, I travel along a ramp that spirals up between curved walls of dark wood. The noise from the rest of the theatre (the concession-stand employees are figuring out their new cash registers) fades away. Pinpoints of light from above barely illuminate my path.

Thom has told me that he was inspired by the vision of Molly Smith, for 13 years now the Arena's artistic director, to create a theatre for all that is passionate, deep and dangerous in the American spirit. Smith comes to Washington from Alaska. The Douglas fir columns around the building's perimeter speak to her as totems. She and Thom call themselves fellow Northwesterners.

The Arena Stage is a poster child of American regional theatre - significant for being the first desegregated theatre in the United States that offered a serious, Tony Award-winning alternative to Broadway. I'm thinking of this, and the drama of Thom's architecture, when the spiral ramp curves sharply inward to reveal the dark, dangerous-looking Cradle theatre. It holds only 200 seats, a rare homage to original, provocative drama.

It might have been merely a generic black box, but there's intense personality to the Cradle. Dark-stained poplar in varying widths is installed to look as if it has peeled off the wall in a basket-weave pattern. Instead of temporary bleacher seating, Thom and project architect James Brown have innovated permanent bench seating, constructed by church-pew builders from Canada. This is where the young African-American playwright Marcus Gardley sat and wrote some of his play every tongue confess about church burnings in the South, which has its world premiere in the Cradle on Nov. 9.

Thom is a gregarious sprite of a man. Born in Hong Kong, and now nearly 70, he is a lover of food and music, and plays the clarinet. His aesthetic is compelled not just by design, but by the actual nuts and bolts of construction. Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki (currently designing the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto) and the late Canadian Arthur Erickson were his mentors. Modern rigour he learned from Maki; the power of poured-in-place concrete forms from Erickson. In Canada, Thom's most exquisite work is the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts in Vancouver.

Paying attention to the dreams and ambitions of neighbourhoods is what defines Thom's approach. Southwest Washington has long been isolated from the rest of the city, thanks to a 1950s freeway rammed across the top of the district. Thom walked the area for weeks, and decided that the theatre needed to connect directly to the Washington Channel, which runs parallel to the Potomac River and is across the street from the Mead Center. He also successfully advised Anthony Williams, then Washington's mayor, to fully reopen nearby residential 4th Avenue, a major artery that had been cut off from the city during the urban-renewal schemes of the past.

"One of the things that excited me was to open our arms to the water. This is a city that's turned its back on the river," Smith tells me, during a rehearsal break from her mixed-race production of Oklahoma!, for which the orchestra will play from inside a timber-frame schoolhouse perched above the seats in the now-restored Fichandler.

Thom decided that there was serious value in retaining the modern theatres, not only because of their architecture, by Chicago's Harry Weese, but also to maintain a critical piece of the neighbourhood's collective memory.

Capturing a building within a building is not a new idea. The National Ballet of Canada in Toronto was defined beautifully this way by KPMB Architects in 2006. A few years before that, the British Museum was enlivened when Norman Foster thrust a sublime glass canopy over the Reading Room and created a majestic new courtyard all around it. Washington's Kennedy Center also captures different performance stages - though Washington's Fine Arts Commission specifically directed Thom to provide something softer than the hard, flat lines of the Kennedy roof.

About $25-million had to be "value-engineered" out of the project, meaning the unfortunate elimination atop the Cradle theatre of apartments for playwrights-in-residence; and a less elegant roof bereft of skylights. But the intent of the building's gestures manages to come through. Even in the women's washroom on the main lobby floor, there is a finely tuned detail: Its walls are coated in hot-red Venetian plaster, and the view is to a perfectly framed Washington Monument.

A grand reception hall faces south to the boats moored along the Washington Channel, providing a light-filled room where this week the mayor and every member of Washington's city council, as well as two former mayors, assembled for a fundraising gala. Though they were unable to attend the gala due to the pressures of mid-term electioneering, Barack and Michelle Obama were the event's honorary chairs, and have lent their names to Arena Stage's inaugural year.

Last Saturday, 15,000 people turned up for the grand opening Arena Stage street festival. A neighbourhood once violated is rising up again. That's the triumph of Arena Stage, and the uplifting work of Bing Thom, who many in Washington consider their adopted creative son.