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To be sure, its memorials to Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and King are designed to broadcast lofty and highpowered messages about our leaders and their achievements. These stone relics calibrate a potent measure of what we have become. Equally important, though, are the events that have occurred in and around the memorials over time. Encapsulated on plaques across the Mall are the poignant stories of a strong-willed nation’s persistent development. Half of the American people will visit the National Mall in their lifetime, and 8 million foreign visitors come here every year. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most popular group of visitors to visit the Mall are the eighth-graders of the nation, who come here on school trips to walk through the epicenter of American patriotism. Ironically, it’s all of these visitors, inspired by the story of America, that are part of the Mall’s biggest problem. They’ve proven to be an unrelenting source of wear and tear during the past four decades. For the National Park Service, the official institution charged with taking care of the Mall, about $400 million in deferred Congressional funding has taken its toll, as well. Walls are crumbling. Fish are dying in the reflecting pools. Grass has been trampled into dust. And as if to add insult to injury, a 5.8-magnitude earthquake rattled the Washington Monument’s marble panels in August 2011, all the way up to the tip of its aluminum capstone. The monument has been closed to visitors ever since. “You don’t want your best place in America to look like a junkyard,” says architect Donald Stastny. But it does seem to resemble a forgotton wasteland. Walk through the Constitution Gardens near the Vietnam Memorial, stroll by the Sylvan Theater alongside the Washington Monument, or wander along Union Square in front of the Capitol. Each of these three sites is in intense disrepair, and thus they have become the focus of a design competition that Stastny managed this year, on behalf of the Trust for the National Mall, a private organization dedicated to the Mall’s restoration. “We wanted to bring together the best design minds in the nation, to realize the aspirations of the National Mall Plan,” Stastny says. That plan, which proposed the redesign competition, was completed by the park service in 2010. Its goal: to make the Mall the best park in the world. The objective was to link vistas and monuments without overshadowing existing memorials and landscapes. “We wanted the competitors to create connective tissue in the Mall, subservient to other parts, but to make everything work,” Stastny told me. Stastny and the Trust opened the competition to designers across the nation. “We wanted as many as possible,” said Caroline Cunningham, president of the trust. To judge the entries, the trust assembled a jury of eight landscape architects, building architects, academics, critics and historians, each armed with expertise in one or more aspects of the Mall. Among the jurors: architect Thom Mayne of Los Angeles-based Morphosis, as well as former architecture PUBLIC PLACES

critic Benjamin Forgey from The Washington Post. The jury narrowed an initial field of 58 entries to four for each project, and then placed the finalists on display for public comment. The jury announced the winning designs on May 2. Each brings a 21st-century, cutting-edge attitude to the Mall and promises to make it into one of America’s most outstanding parks. The jury awarded the team of Rogers Marvel Architects & Peter Walker the commission for Constitution Gardens, and chose OLIN & Weiss/Manfredi to redesign the Sylvan Theater. Congress voted in late 2011 to transfer Union Square to the Architect of the Capitol, the office charged with management, operations, and security issues for the Capitol Grounds. Because of this decision, the Architect of the Capitol will oversee the winning schematic for the site, designed by Gustafson Guthrie Nichol & Davis Brody Bond. All three winning designs are nothing if not ambitious, but they’re sensitive to their sites and surroundings, too. Each defers to nearby memorials and each seeks to heighten the visual dialogue between those monuments and the people who come to experience them. Then there was the issue of sustainability. “The most interesting element is that all three solutions consider a more sustainable fashion for water and better movement of people,” Cunningham says. “They improve what’s already there, and bring the beauty of the park to new levels. They bring it up to the next step of the future.” The winners also balanced the tricky equation of easy access and heightened security, an inherent dichotomy for a free society living in a time of terror. “The question was how to integrate security to take care of the threat level, and still keep it open,” Stastny said. 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. Executing the entire National Mall Plan should cost about $700 million. 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. Groundbreaking for the first project will take place by 2014, though it’s unknown now which site will come first. “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. 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 all 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.” turn the page to see the three designs >



Architecture: Volume 1  

A Special Edition From Design Bureau 2012