National Mall Design Competition Will Be Fierce

Many of the world’s top landscape architects and architects presented their designs for three grand projects on the National Mall: Constitution Gardens, Union Square, and the Washington Monument Grounds at Sylvan Theatre. The competition is fierce because all the design proposals offer elegant, exciting, innovative ideas for solving sticky ecological, security, and public space design challenges. Each proposal may reflect a $100,000 or more of conceptual and design work. But all that work may actually be worth it: the pay-off could be big for these top designers. Some $700 million in public and private funds are expected to be raised to make these projects a reality. Also, in the U.S. at least, few sites would get more visitors than a major new site in the city of monuments.

One worrying wrinkle: Congress recently decided to transfer control of Union Square, the 11-acre reflecting pool area in front of the Capitol, to the Architect of the Capitol, a group that may take that piece out of contention. We hope that the Architect of the Capitol will move forward with the process and work together with the Trust for the National Mall to revitalize this critical public space. ASLA’s blue-ribbon panel of landscape architects recommended a re-design in a review of the National Park Service’s plan a few years ago.

A brief overview of design proposals for each are listed below, alphabetically. Each team is a true collaboration, a 50-50 effort between a landscape architecture and architecture firm.

Constitution Gardens

All design proposals seem to focus on ecologically restoring Constitution Gardens and improving access to the lake and nature. All offer new multi-functional structures, some of which are designed to almost seamlessly integrate with the landscape.

Andropogon + Bohlin Cywinski Jackson: For this design team featuring Philadelphia-based landscape architecture firm Andropogon, the new Constitution garden could be a place of “respite, regeneration and romance.” The team offers a “biophilic design” that “harnesses nature to transform Constitution Gardens into a picture of healthy water, soil, foilage, habitat, and people.” In the lake, a new waterfall bridge would encourage fun interactions with nature.

Nelson Byrd Woltz Landcape Architects + Paul Murdoch Architects: This design team, which includes landscape architecture firm Nelson Byrd Woltz, offers another biophilic approach, with what looks like a proposal for a major ecological restoration. Reconstructed wetlands will be accessible via boardwalks that jut out into the water, while a performance space somewhat concealed in the landscape offers views of the lake and gardens.  

OLIN + Weiss / Manfredi: OLIN, a landscape architecture firm that has done lots of work on the National Mall, works with Weiss / Manfredi to offer “Living Waters: A Museum without Walls, a model for integrating social activity and green infrastructure into our national cultural landscape.” The design team proposes a “layered approach” that “brings the health of the water and surrounding landscape into balance and introduces a new collection of indoor and outdoor ecologically vibrant destinations.”

Rogers Marvel Architects + PWP Landscape Architecture: Rogers Marvel Architects, which just won the national competition to redesign the Ellipse, presents a proposal with PWP Landscape Architecture that honors the “clear and optimistic legacy of Constitution Gardens through amplified morphology, aesthetic ecology, and pastoral recreation. A vibrant haven on the National Mall.” A pavilion restaurant would look out on the lake and gardens. In the winter, a skating rink would appear.

Union Square

All designs seem to bring Union Square more in line with the existing streets and avenues, while offering an ecologically-sound, secure, and flexible space for free speech.  

Diller, Scofidio + Renfro and Hood Design: This design team, which includes Walter Hood, FASLA, recent National Design Award winner, says their proposal integrates “the rich architectural legacies, natural ecologies, civic vitality, and political centrality of Washington D.C. into a new synthesis.” Their proposal would catch water in a basin, and then feed it through a new set of wetlands ringing Union Square. The water cleansed by the wetlands would then feed into a new reflecting pool, which would serve as a platform for speech. A microphone would turn visitors’ voices into waves on the pool.  

Gustafson Guthrie Nichol + David Brody Bond: This team with Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, a landscape architecture firm that has done a number of projects in Washington, D.C. (including the new CityCenter), would create a highly flexible space that can reconfigure itself for different uses. A design with multiple layers and different “rooms,” there are plans for new site hydrologic systems, soils, plants, and sustainable materials. A more limited reflecting pool is found between steps set in lush botanical gardens.

Workshop: Ken Smith Landscape Architect + Pei Cobb Freed & Partners: Landscape architect Ken Smith, ASLA, and Pei Cobb Freed & Partners offers a highly flexible, oval reflecting pool ringed by a “fountain necklace.” Diagonals across the pool serve as dividing lines and show how the pool can disappear in segments if hardscapes are needed for protests. Thick stone benches would provide a place to contemplate the Capitol, while a rich planting scheme would be set within bronze-plated walls, included for security reasons.

Snohetta + AECOM: Architecture firm Snohetta, which is now redesigning the Times Square pedestrian mall, and AECOM, which recently purchased landscape architecture firm EDAW, presents a new “circular and sloping theatre-like platform” that would rise seven feet above nearby streets, perhaps for security reasons. “Vernal gardens” with “integrated benches and new natural landscape forms” will provide a “discreet” security barrier, while also reintroducing the indigineous landscape. On either side of the sloping theatre, a set of “undulating” trellises would mimic the movement of eagles’ wings.

The Washington Monument Grounds at Sylvan Theatre

All designs create multiple performance spaces and integrate restaurants, restrooms, and bicycle and bus access into the new setting. All the designs would transform a dull, underused part of the mall into one of the most exciting draws, while linking the theatre area with the ecological systems of the Tidal Basin.

Balmori Associates + Work Architecture Company: Landscape and urban design firm Balmori Associates, which has done the master plan and parks for the new waterfront Bilbao, and Work Architecture Company seek to create multiple outdoor performance spaces, including a Sylvan Theatre with its Sylan “bowl,” a recessed natural seating area; Courtyard Stage; Cherry Grove Stage; Oak Grove Stage; along with other outdoor spaces, including a playground, bike rental stand, and restaurant. One key goal is to “impart the feeling that the new landscape belongs there, that it fits within the range of diverse forms and programs of the Mall.”

Diller, Scofidio and Renfro + Hood Design: One of the few design teams offering proposals for two sites, this design team proposes a landscape that is “figuratively ‘peeled up’ to create a new structure that serves as both outdoor theater and building program, blurring the lines between nature and artifice.” Their design uses the curves in the “peeled-up” areas to create seating for multiple stages, while the underneath of the curves present ecological experiences for visitors and spaces for restaurants. 

Michael Maltzan Architecture + Tom Leader Studio: This team, which includes landscape architecture firm Tom Leader Studio, seeks to renew the site’s “connection to the Tidal Basin, drawing the elms, lindens, and oaks to the Monument. Creating a partnership with, rather than a dominion over, nature, biology, and water keeps with the agrarian philosophies of our Nation’s founders.” The design is defined by a “sweeping, centripetal” design with a multi-purpose facility that has an Oculus at its center. A stage can fold out into a huge pavilion.

OLIN + Weiss/Manfredi: Another team offering proposals in two areas, OLIN + Weiss/Manfredi, would create a new set of amphitheatres, including the Sylvan Grove, defined by a “new wooded canopy and terraced lawn,” and a Sylvan Pavilion for “impromptu performances” that would offer an “all-weather café and multi-use destination.” The design team envisions a highly sustainable “performance” landscape, connecting the Mall to the Tidal Basin.

Explore all proposals in more detail and submit your feedback before April 15 if you want your comments to reach the competition jury.

Image credit: (1) National Mall /, (2) Andropogon + Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, (3) Nelson Byrd Woltz Landcape Architects + Paul Murdoch Architects, (4) OLIN + Weiss / Manfredi, (5) Rogers Marvel Architects + PWP Landscape Architecture, (6) Diller, Scofidio + Renfro and Hood Design, (7) Gustafson Guthrie Nichol + David Brody Bond, (8) Workshop: Ken Smith Landscape Architect + Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, (9) Snohetta + AECOM, (10) Balmori Associates + Work Architecture Company, (11) Diller, Scofidio + Renfro and Hood Design, (12) Michael Maltzan Architecture + Tom Leader Studio, (13) OLIN + Weiss/Manfredi

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