National Mall Design Competition Winners Speak Out

The winners of the National Mall design competition took center stage at the National Building Museum last night. Beating out an amazing set of competitors, these landscape architects and architects presented their visions for Constitution GardensThe Washington Monument Grounds at Sylvan Theatre, and Union Square, all key sites on the Mall. In a win for us all, these design professionals almost entirely avoided “design speak,” instead using eloquent, even poetic language to describe their approach to the many design, bureaucratic, and financial challenges facing them. Only a few times did we hear off-putting words like “horizontality” or “materiality.” Expertly moderated by John Beardsley, director of the garden and landscape studies program at Dumbarton Oaks, each design team explained their solutions and answered questions:

Constitution Gardens

Adam Greenspan, ASLA, Peter Walker and Partners, and Robert Rogers, Rogers Marvel Architects, said Constitution Gardens is unlike any other place on the Mall, offering a break from the “formality” of the monumental structures and spaces. Unfortunately, though, the gardens, which were created by architecture firm SOM and landscape architect Dan Kiley in the 1960s, are “dying,” said Greenspan. Hundreds of trees have collapsed over the years and been replaced. The soils have “slumped” and the edge of Kiley’s concrete-lined pond has fallen apart.

The original design was inspired by Roberto Burle Marx’s “biomorphic modernism.” Honoring the past design intent, Greenspan said he liked “that it’s an alternate reality, or that it should be.” To enhance this sense of separation from the Mall, the design team raised the outer edge near the street, bringing the grade up by 8 feet in order to create that “ensconced feeling” and block out traffic noises. Paths will cut through the raised grades, creating more defined access points. “There will now be clear entries into the garden,” said Rogers.

The entire space will be dug out and rebuilt to be a “regenerative landscape.” The soils will be reconstructed to provide a more solid foundation for a range of new plants. The majority of spaces will be meadows and lawns, with some woodlands, and new wetland plants ringing the outer edge of a new pond. Plant and animal life will be self-contained within the new gardens. Trees that can survive will be reused. Specimen trees will be moved to new spots. The lake water itself will now funnel in through the Lincoln reflecting pool and will be designed so it can be periodically flushed out with fresh water from the Tidal Basin. It won’t just be an ecological wonderland though; it will also be beautiful. “At the edge of the pond, there will be an aesthetic ecology,” with “clear sweeps of color.”

Within the man-made pond, a new reflecting pool, a circle, will act as a separate basin. There, a ring around the circle will enable kids to launch toy boats. In winter, that part can be turned into a skating rink. This won’t be a tiny spot for a single loop though. Greenspan said the skating rink is “hockey rink-sized.”

Rogers said a new pavilion will be built on the site of the original SOM proposal, but be brought closer to the lake to create a “dynamic engagement with the water.” A clear frame of a building — a “simple thing you move through for circulation” — will provide a “threshhold moment” for visitors. There, large sets of stairs will help the National Park Service better handle the crowds. The upper level, which will include a restaurant for both tourists and locals alike, will offer a “respite, a view out onto the gardens.”

The goal of the design is to “maintain the clean, clear geometry of the lake,” said Greenspan, while “maintaining the optimism of Modernism on the Mall.” As seasons change, paths will also emerge through the trees to the nearby Vietnam War memorial. Still, this is a new place. “With the change in vertical grade, planting systems, we will change the vibe.”

Washington Monument Grounds at Sylvan Theatre

The National Mall is the nation’s “center stage,” a vital place for “communion,” said Marion Weiss, Weiss/Manfredi, the architecture firm on the project. Originally intended to be the place where the dynamism of Shakespeare Theatre was brought to the Mall, the Sylvan Theatre has a “great history.” While the team will respect that history, Skip Graffam, ASLA, OLIN, said the team will also “charter a future course for the site.”

The Sylvan Theatre is at the edge of “very popular spaces” on the Mall so it needs to be flexible and resilient to foot traffic and concert use. It’s also a challenged site because that’s where all the tour buses park, spilling out many of the 24 million tourists who visit the Mall each year. Focusing on the site as an edge, Graffam said one of the key design goals was to better connect the site to the Tidal Basin, while also enabling different sized crowds. Their vision laid out how the space could expand to hold 100, 1,000, or even 10,000 concert goers through a bowl shape, peeled-up to hide the buses and facilities behind. The new bowl-shaped amphitheatre will “open its arms to the Washington Monument.”

A Sylvan Grove will help extend the tree canopy and connect the trees of the Mall and Tidal Basin. The team is also taking advantage of opportunities to “reconnect the southern monument grounds to the waterfront” so more people can access the water and nature. Elm trees, set in boscs and allees, will serve as a foundation for a new habitat designed for both people and nature. “There’s also a conservation element. We’re removing 60 percent of the turf,” said Graffam.

The back-side of the peeled-up amphitheatre will serve as a “gateway,” with a pavilion shrouded in landscape. Rain garden-covered roofs will help keep the “topography low.” Within the facilities, there’s a new cafe that mimics the grove, with roof structures that create the effect of light pouring through a forest. 

Weiss thinks the new space can be a “high-performance landscape,” providing both a space for performances and many types of biophilic experiences. “The site can be magical.”

Union Square

“This is a site with identity problems,” said Peter Cook, Davis Brody Bond, the architect working with landscape architecture firm Gustafson Guthrie Nichol (GGN) on Union Square. “Where is it? No one knows.” In fact, it’s the 27-acre space that holds the 6-acre reflecting pool right in front of the Capitol building. Over 200 years, the site has evolved. French architect and urban planner Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who designed the city with African American surveyor Benjamin Banneker, saw the spot as a public space, a plaza for the masses. Later plans covered the site in trees. Only with the McMillan plan was the Mall — and all that public space — created and the fountain and plaza brought back. At that point, the “site became an extension of the Mall,” though, losing its identity.

At its best, the space is a “grand gesture,” which gives visual form to the Capitol, said Rodrigo Abela, ASLA, the landscape architect who runs GGN’s east coast projects. But, mostly, it’s a “underwhelming, underutilized site” that hasn’t lived up to its potential for “very powerful experiences.” The site is part of the critical line running through the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial so this project is crucial.

GGN and Davis Brody Bond’s design “takes the full square and breaks it into parts.” To keep the monumentality of the Mall, there’s a new reflecting pool, much narrower than the current one. Two national gardens on either side better knit the site into existing pathways to Union Station, the Mall, and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.’s undulating Capitol Hill grounds. Breaking the site up introduces “multiple scales” and provides “greater definition to an amorphous space.” Now, there’s a “space that draws you in.”

Zooming into the terraces (above) that now line the central reflecting pool, you can see the 3-foot grades that lead down to the water, which sub-divide the spaces and offer increased security. The water itself will now be changeable. There are cascading pools running perpindicular to the east end of the grand water-scape. Jets can be turned on on weekends and used for special events. Walkways enable visitors to now walk through the pools, instead of hoofing it all the way around the edges. One or more areas of the water can be turned off, expanding the space for public events or protests. “Flexible spaces enable a diversity of expression,” something the current design fails to do.

Reducing the depth of the water to 2-inches means far less water will need to be collected from nearby buildings and underground. The team argues this makes the new feature far more sustainable (and beautiful). Indeed, right now, the reflecting pool is a great place to see dead birds and trash floating. The goal is to create a “high-performing space” that can be used 24/7.

After the presentations, Beardsley asked pointed questions, wondering whether the new designs truly are more sustainable, considering the designers almost all introduce more complex planting and stormwater management systems. Given the National Park Service barely has the funds and capacity to handle what’s there now, can the new systems work? The design teams argued that turf is actually harder to manage than more ecological systems. Also, the introduction of dedicated hardscapes — paths for people — mean “the plantings can be given a chance to survive.” These days, so much of the vegetation looks trampled, under siege from the hordes of tourists.

Can the designs accomodate future unexpected uses?, Beardsley wondered. Rogers said “creating focused, controlled entry points” will help limit those unexpected uses. Beardsley also asked whether the new buildings proposed in all sites will alter the careful balance struck on the Mall, which tilts in favor of the landscape. Weiss says her buildings, at least, “submit to the larger landscape. We respect the broader landscape, putting the Monument at center stage.” Rogers thinks his new pavilion in Constitution Gardens is “just enough building,” and given it’s set within the tree canopy, “doesn’t engage with the rest of the Mall.” There were more questions about lighting, the economics of these spaces, and security, which will all need to be answered once the money is raised and designs move towards implementation.

Image credits: (1-5) Constitution Gardens / Peter Walker and Partners and Rogers Marvel Architects, (6-10) The Washington Monument Grounds at Sylvan Theatre / Weiss/Manfredi and OLIN, (11-15) Union Square / Gustafson Guthrie Nichol and Davis Brody Bond

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