A New Vision for the National Mall: Part 2 - Design Bureau

Evening view from Grant Monument

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A New Vision for the National Mall: Part 2

Tuesday, November 20th, 2012

By J. Michael Welton

Images courtesy of the Trust for the National Mall

Yesterday, we brought you part one of the innovative plan to reinvigorate Washington D.C.'s National Mall. Today, we talk a bit more about the three winning designs.

Union Square by Gustafson Guthrie Nichol & Davis Brody Bond

At Union Square, the winning design by Gustafson Guthrie Nichol & Davis Brody Bond  succeeds nobly at marrying accessibility with security. It removes the current reflecting pond that lies parallel to the Capitol across Third Street SW, and adds a new pond at the nearest grass panel on the Mall. The new pond is actually five basins, with two to three inches of water that are easily accessible to pedestrians. “You can walk across it if you choose to,” Kathryn Gustafson, landscape architect on the project, said. “There are walkways – it’s totally useable.”

The gesture is a symbolic salute to the Lincoln Memorial and its Reflecting Pool at the other end of the Mall. But it also introduces a new layer of security to what exists there already. “The water feature is lifted up, so it increases the security with a second barrier, rather than decreasing it,” Gustafson said.

As the designers worked through their research and their solution, they sensed a disconnect between the Mall and the Capitol. “What we found [to be] strong were the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, and its Reflecting Pool,” she said. “That was a bookend, and so we looked for symmetry here.” They delved deeply into the name of their project as well, seeking meaning and inspiration. “After the Civil War, the word union meant one thing, but today, in an extraordinarily diverse society, it’s come to mean something else,” she said. “It’s about one voice – a mosaic of one people.”

Their fountain in the new reflecting pool is to be made different pieces, like that mosaic of people. And there will be one unified voice. “The reflecting pool is a statement about that,” Gustafson said of the winning design.


Sylvan Theater by OLIN & Weiss/Manfredi

At the Sylvan Theater, OLIN & Weiss/Manfredi wanted to re-orient the performance space back to the Washington Monument. They also wanted to provide a pedestrian path and visual link to the nearby Tidal Basin and the Jefferson Memorial.  

The new design reconnects the three points via a new bridge and cleared vista. “We’ve re-engaged the lost southern monument grounds,” said OLIN partner Hallie Boyce or the Sylvan Theater area. “Now you can walk to it along a sinuous curve of a bridge through a canopy of trees.” The landscape calls for double plantings of native trees – at the theater itself, of tulip poplars, sweet gums and honey locust, each turning a seasonal gold in the fall. They’ll be complemented by tall native grasses in the growing plain, akin to Hyde Park in London. “We’ll use durable materials for the areas with large crowds, and plantings for less used areas,” she said.  “It will be a framed and clear plaza that’s a gateway to the Mall.”

The piece de resistance, though, lies in Sylvan Theater’s new performance area. It’s a bowl that rises 32 feet at its outer edge, almost matching the base of the Washington Monument. Whereas audience members now turn their backs to the obelisk, the new design reorients the seating so that the monument it will serve soon as dramatic backdrop to any performance.


Constitution Gardens by Rogers Marvel Architects & Peter Walker and Partners

At Constitution Gardens, Rogers Marvel Architects & Peter Walker and Partners was the only team that looked back to SOM’s 1976 bicentennial plan. Their winning entry updates it with 21st-century innovations. “We were struck by the optimism and clarity of the original design by [SOM’s] Dan Kiley,” said landscape architect Peter Walker. “It’s engaged with the timeless quality of the Mall.”

As in the other two sites, the Washington Monument is highly visible from Constitution Gardens.  The Vietnam Memorial lies over a knoll to the west, and the site sees traffic between those two and the World War II Memorial.

The team wants to improve the wide site and present landscape in major ways. But their site analysis shows that the soil and drainage have failed to support Kiley’s original plants. They are currently growing half as much as expected, so that a 40-year-old mature tree looks more like a 20-year-old pole.

Their solution is to dig up all the existing trees. They will then suspend them up over the ground while the entire area is re-graded and the drainage completely re-engineered. They’ll then redistribute and re-plant the trees, adding new plantings only where they’re needed.

And as they change the topography, the team will also look hard at the water in the lake, which is now stagnant, full of algae bloom, and fed by the District’s municipal water source. To help mitigate the problems, they are proposing that the lake be recreated and fed by stormwater, rather than by its current city sources. “All the water will be treated before it goes into the pond, then treated there again, before being used for irrigation or going back into the Potomac,” Walker said.

And in the middle of the gardens, the team will build a pavilion with expansive terraces and ample seating.  It is hoped that visitors will take a seat, take in the grounds, and enjoy the inspiring views that the entire Mall has to offer.


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