Mall design contest winners named

Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately reported cost and fundraising information for the project. The entire National Mall Plan, developed by the National Park Service in 2010, is expected to cost about $700 million.

May 2, 2012

The votes are in.

The Trust for the National Mall has named the winning teams in its competition to redesign three long-neglected landscapes between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial.

Rogers Marvel Architects & Peter Walker and Partners will redesign Constitution Gardens east of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, while OLIN & Weiss/Manfredi will bring new life to the Sylvan Theater, southeast of the Washington Monument. The winning design for Union Square near the Capitol, by Gustafson Guthrie Nichol & Davis Brody Bond, will be forwarded to the Architect of the Capitol.

Each entry offers cutting-edge landscape solutions that connect monuments visually, while giving the Mall’s 25 million annual visitors opportunities for entertainment and respite.

Those visitors have proved to be an unrelenting source of wear and tear over the years. Four decades of use and $400 million in deferred maintenance have taken their toll also. Walls are crumbling. Fish in Constitution Gardens’ lake are dying. And Caroline Cunningham, president of the Trust for the National Mall, says it’s too late for triage. 

“You don’t want your best place in America to look like a junkyard,” said Donald Stastny, the design competition manager.

A jury of eight landscape architects, academics, architects, critics and historians selected the winners. They narrowed a field of 58 entries to four for each project, then placed the finalists on display for public comment April 9.

The winning designs bring a vibrant, 21st-century attitude to the Mall. They’re nothing if not ambitious, but they’re sensitive to their sites and surroundings too.

The winners also faced the challenge of balancing the tricky equation of easy access and heightened security, an inherent dichotomy for a free society living in a time of terrorism.

“The question was how to integrate security to take care of the threat level and still keep it open,” Stastny said.

At Union Square, the design by Gustafson Guthrie Nichol & Davis Brody Bond removes the reflecting pond that lies parallel to the Capitol across Third Street SW and adds a pond at the nearest grass panel on the Mall. The gesture is a symbolic and symmetrical salute to the Lincoln Memorial and its Reflecting Pool. It also introduces a new layer of security.

“The water feature is lifted up, so it increases the security of the second barrier, rather than decreasing it,” said Kathryn Gustafson, landscape architect on the project.

At the Sylvan Theater, the challenge was to find a way to reorient the performance space back to the Washington Monument — and provide a pedestrian link to the Tidal Basin and the Jefferson Memorial.

“We’ve reengaged the lost southern monument grounds,” said Hallie Boyce at OLIN. “Now you can walk to it along a sinuous curve of a bridge through a canopy of trees.”

The piece de resistance, though, lies in the new performance area. It’s a bowl that rises 32 feet at its outer edge, almost matching the base of the Washington Monument. Where audience members now turn their backs to the monument, the obelisk will eventually serve as a backdrop to every performance.

At Constitution Gardens, the winning entry by Rogers Marvel Architects & Peter Walker and Partners looked back to the 1976 plan developed for the bicentennial — and updated it.

“We were struck by the optimism and clarity of the original design,” said winning team member and landscape architect Peter Walker. “It’s engaged with the timeless quality of the Mall.”

The Washington Monument is highly visible. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial lies over a knoll to the west, and the site sees traffic between those two and the World War II Memorial.

Its proposed pavilion will be a threshold to the lake, using terraces to frame the gardens. “There will be a restaurant, model boating, ice skating in winter and performances — for local residents as well as visitors,” said Rob Rogers, architect on the winning team.

Groundbreaking for the first project will take place by 2014. “The first one depends on three things — cost, what else is going on in the park and public input,” Cunningham said. “We will phase them in.”

The first ribbon-cutting should take place by 2016.

Now that the winners have been named, the trust can begin fundraising for its two projects. The Architect of the Capitol will handle fundraising for Union Square.

The entire National Mall Plan, developed by the National Park Service in 2010, should cost about $700 million. The trust’s two projects are a part of that. The next phase of the competition will identify and evaluate costs ahead of implementation and roughly half of the costs will come from the private sector.

When they’re complete, the new designs promise to embellish the Mall’s sense of place with a forward-looking, long-term approach to how it serves its audiences.

“Symbolically, it’s seen as the center of America,” Stastny said. “It should be sustainable and around for a long time — it’s our postcard to the rest of the world.”

Welton is a freelance writer.

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