Where to hold the Solar Decathlon

Saturday, February 19, 2011; 6:15 PM

The decision to evict the Solar Decathlon from the Mall highlights the competition between important values for a limited resource: a unique civic landscape that provides a forum for ideas, issues and political events ["Banishment of students' energy showcase from Mall generates anger," news story, Feb. 13]. The heavy use of the Mall's lawn has inevitably created an unsustainable landscape whose poor conditions are well known. Like any resource, the Mall is limited in what it can accommodate.

In 2009, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission published the Monumental Core Framework Plan to create venues for national commemorative, cultural and political expression. A primary principle is to connect the Mall to the waterfront via an existing monumental corridor, 10th Street, also known as the L'Enfant Promenade, which extends from the Smithsonian Castle to Banneker Park overlooking the Washington Channel. This wide streetscape could provide space for events such as the Solar Decathlon and is well within the monumental context important to the event: It is surrounded by views of the Smithsonian, the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial and the headquarters of a key sponsor, the Energy Department.

Locating the Solar Decathlon here could be the first step in a much-needed transformation of the corridor from its barren condition to a future as a green extension of the Mall and the heart of a new public-private ecological district in Southwest D.C.

Thomas Luebke, Washington

The writer is secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.


As project manager for the 2009 Cornell University Solar Decathlon team and a recent graduate of the school's master of architecture program, I am distraught to learn that the 2011 competition may not be held on the Mall. For a year and a half, the 2011 teams have been readying their solar houses for "America's front yard." In solar design, site and orientation to the sun are among the first parameters, and these houses were designed to be shown on the Mall. Teams made travel, housing and strategic plans based on the Mall location.

Students who participate in the Solar Decathlon understand the significance of the national spotlight the Mall provides. The decathlon rule book outlines rigorous assembly and disassembly guidelines, including minimal bearing pressure of foundations, strict vehicular access, ground protection and cleanup. Contrary to the assertion by federal officials in the Feb. 13 news story that decathlon participants "don't appear to care about the havoc they wreak on the historic grounds," every decathlete understands that the location is sacrosanct.

But these houses are not being erected in flower beds or on top of museums; they are displayed on the Mall's central grassy strip. While the Mall may be undergoing an expensive restoration, it seems awful that the nation would forgo meaningful civic events to preserve the lawn.

Christopher Werner, Ithaca, N.Y.

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