National Mall Design Competition Open to All

The Trust for the National Mall announced the kick-off of a National Mall design competition in Washington, D.C., which will be open to established and emerging U.S. teams of landscape architects, urban designers, architects, and sustainable designers. Trust Chairman John Ackridge said the goal of the competition was to make the National Mall, which receives 25 million visitors annually, the “best park in the world.” Caroline Cunningham, President, said the Trust, which is partnering with the National Park Service and is expected to raise nearly $350 million or half of the total budget, is looking for the “best talent” in the world for this multi-year restoration initiative. The Interior Department, of which the National Park Service is a part, has agreed to match any private funds raised, with the goal of bringing in a total of $700 million for the entire Mall restoration project. There are still “critical deferred maintenance” issues — compacted soils, endangered trees, and collapsing sea walls that are being addressed or still sorely need to be.

Cunnigham sees value in taking on three separate design projects in one big design competition. “Incorporating projects together is important for addressing them in a contextual manner collectively in the park itself.” She added that the Mall has a long history with design competitions, and their results have been “integral” to the current shape of the space.

The competition will yield final designs for three main areas to be “respectfully refurbished and rehabilitated” in the next few years: 

Union Square: According to the National Park Service’s National Mall plan, which is the basis of the design competition, the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial will serve as a “focal point of a symmetrical and formally laid out civic square based on historic precedents. The highly symbolic foreground to the U.S. Capitol will be redesigned as a an attractive flexible stage for democracy.” In addition, the space will need to be redesigned so it’s flexible enough to transform and accomodate larger crowds as needed. Part of the design plan involves reducing the size of the reflecting pool in favor of an “interactive water feature, highlighting more sustainable water management practices.” Other changes related to the grade of the site, addition of multi-purpose facilities and restrooms, and places for “recreation equipment rentals.” The idea for a Union Square design competition came out the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA)’s Blue Ribbon panel.

The Trust’s specific design competition guidelines zoom in on the details of what designers will be expected to cover in their proposals. In addition to creating a “flexible multipurpose destination that symbolizes our nation and the idea of of – E Pluribus Unum (out of many – one),” the new Union Square will need to improve security along the western edge of the site; demonstrate sensivity to historic context; maintain water as an element of the site, utilize water features in a sustainable manner, and incorporate green stormwater management design elements; improve pedestrian connections between the institutions along the Mall; and build in multi-use facilities and infrastructure within the site.

Washington Monument Grounds at Sylvan Theatre: The National Mall plan calls for the Washington Monument Grounds, which were recently redesigned by OLIN, to be further updated. Also, the National Park Service wants the “infrastructure to be provided to make them more sustainable.” Part of this effort involves replacing the Sylvan Theatre and nearby restrooms with a multi-purpose facility. “An architectually unique indoor/outdoor visitor services facility” will have cafes and restaurants and flexible performance spaces.

The design guidelines call for a “flexible outdoor space” to be used for a variety of performances from large concert venues to smaller educational programs. The hillside lawn seating area will be better oriented. Again, the designers will need to respect historic sensitivities, address on-site pedestrian circulation and connections to other monuments, and incorporate a range of functions in the facility, including parking, visitor information kiosks, retail, restrooms, and restaurants.

Constitution Gardens: The last major piece of the competition, Constitution Gardens, was originally intended to provide a “pastoral setting for passive recreation,” says the National Park Service. The area is expected to continue to accomodate smaller scale demonstrations and events. The end goal: “a restful, multipurpose visitor destination.” However, many issues with poor soils and pedestrian circulation systems need to be dealt with. In addition, the concrete-lined lake needs to be “reconstructed to be self-sustaining, using a nonpotable water source for filling.” The entire man-made lake is expected to be redesigned as a stormwater management retention basin and part of a larger green infrastructure system. Also, there needs to be new facilities and performance spaces.

The design competition manual adds that the revamped Constitution Gardens will need to “connect with the filtration and pumping system under development for the Lincoln Reflecting Pool to provide clean water.” The new site also needs to address pedestrian circulation issues between the different memorials, “restore and relocate the historic canal Lockkeeper’s House,” and incorporate multi-use facilities.

Donald Stastny, an architect and urban designer, will manage the nearly one-million dollar competition process. He said that the Trust is now working on putting together a high-profile jury and advisory panel. He has also settled on a fairly involved process for the competition:

Stage 1) There will be a call for portfolios, which will include a statement of design intent or philosophy. Here, teams will indentify which of the three sites they want to work on (they can select all three).

Stage 2)
Some 8-10 teams will be selected for each of the three sites. By this stage, the teams will need full technical partners in place. The jury will want to see that real teams that could implement the project are in place.

Stage 3)
Some 4-5 teams will be selected as finalists for each site and the actual design work will begin. The Trust didn’t say how much they would provide teams to create actual design concepts.

All finalists’ design concepts will be on display in April of next year. Winners will be announced in May.

The competition registration period is now open and teams are invited (but not required) to make their way to D.C. for a pre-submittal briefing and site visit later in September. The registration period ends October 8.

Learn more about the design competition and download the design manual.

Image credit: National Mall /