The Mall in its current state

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A New Vision for the National Mall: Part 1

Monday, November 19th, 2012

By J. Michael Welton

All images courtesy of the Trust for the National Mall

If you want to experience a visual metaphor for the sorry state of the American parks system today take a long and thoughtful stroll along the National Mall in Washington D.C. It has seen better days. The sidewalks are cracked, the landscape is overgrown, and aside from the flocks of tourists passing quickly through en masse, the space feels relatively empty. But it hasn’t always been an open no-man’s land, and it certainly isn’t devoid of design ambition.

Conceived in 1791 by famed landscape architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the Mall and its monuments serve as a living roadmap of American history. To be sure, its memorials to Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and King are designed to broadcast lofty and high-powered messages about our leaders and their achievements. Equally important, though, are the events that have occurred, over time, in and around the memorials.  They calibrate a potent measure of what we have become; 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 here in their lifetime.  Eight million foreign visitors come here every year.  But it’s most popular, by far, with the nation’s idealistic eighth-graders who come here to walk through the epicenter of American patriotism. They lead all other groups in attendance.

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.  Grass has been trampled into dust. As if to add insult to injury, a 5.8-magnitude earthquake in August 2011 rattled the Washington Monument’s marble panels all the way up to the tip of its aluminum capstone.  It’s been closed to visitors ever since. “You don’t want your best place in America to look like a junkyard,” architect Donald Stastny told me during a tour of the Mall early in 2012.

But it does. That was self-evident last spring when he walked me through Constitution Gardens near the Vietnam Memorial, then through the Sylvan Theater alongside the Washington Monument, and finally along Union Square in front of the Capitol. Those three sites were 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 told me.  That plan was completed by the park service in 2010. Its goal: to make the Mall the best park in the world.

The trust’s competition was wide open to designers across the nation.  “We wanted as many as possible,” said Caroline Cunningham, president of the trust. The object 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.

To judge the entries, the trust assembled a jury of eight landscape architects, architects, academics, critics and historians, each armed with expertise in one or more aspects of the Mall. Among them were architect Thom Mayne of Los Angeles-based Morphosis and former architecture 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 on April 9. 

The winning designs, announced on May 2, bring a 21st-century, cutting-edge attitude to the Mall. Rogers Marvel Architects & Peter Walker and Partners will redesign Constitution Gardens east of the Vietnam Memorial, while OLIN & Weiss/Manfredi will breathe new life into the Sylvan Theater, 450 feet southeast of the Washington Monument. The winning design for Union Square, by Gustafson Guthrie Nichol & Davis Brody Bond, will be forwarded to the Architect of the Capitol.  Congress voted in late 2011 to transfer Union Square to that office, which is charged with management, operations, and security issues for the Capitol Grounds.

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 said. “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.”

 

J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art and design for a number of national publications.  He also publishes an online design magazine at www.architectsandartisans.com

Portions of this article appeared in The Washington Post on May 2, 2012