Winners Announced for National Mall Design Competition

The area between the Lincoln Memorial and the U.S. Capitol has seen better days, but architects are vying to improve the nation’s front lawn

Sylvan Theater
Architects from around the world submitted their portfolios, and by mid-December, a jury of experts invited ten design teams to re-imagine three "dead-zones" on the National Mall. Courtesy of Michael Maltzan Architecture + Tom Leader Studio for Sylvan Theater

National-Mall-Redesign-Michael-Maltzan-Tom-Leader-Architecture-Theater-1

Sylvan Theater
(Courtesy of Michael Maltzan Architecture + Tom Leader Studio for Sylvan Theater)
Editor's note: This story was updated to reflect the winners of the compeitition on May 3, 2012

The National Mall in Washington, D.C. gets a lot of love. Each year, the swath, extending from the U.S. Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, attracts more than 25 million visitors. To put it into perspective, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone combined receive only half as many tourists annually. Yet, National Park Service officials and others invested in its upkeep are singing the same chorus: the National Mall has been loved to death.

Last September, the Trust for the National Mall, a nonprofit devoted to improving the park, launched a National Mall Design Competition. Architects from around the country submitted their portfolios, and by mid-December, a jury of experts invited ten design teams to re-imagine three “dead zones”: Union Square, in front of the Capitol; the grounds just south of the Washington Monument; and Constitution Gardens, just east of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The trust released the visions for the Mall, which included amphitheaters and dramatic fountains, skating rinks and lush gardens, in April.

Today, the jury announced the winning design for each site. For Constitution Gardens, the panel selected an all-season approach by Rogers Marvel Architects + Peter Walker and Partners (Slide 4). A design by OLIN + Weiss/Manfredi (Slide 9) for a new performance space on the Washington Monument grounds prevailed. And, for Union Square, the experts' favorite is a concept by Gustafson Guthrie Nichol + Davis Brody Bond (Slide 12) calling for a smaller pool than the existing one.

Since Union Square has fallen under the auspices of the Architect of the Capitol, the prevailing design for it will be sent to Congress to consider. The trust hopes to move forward on a redesign of either the Washington Monument grounds or Constitution Gardens by 2016.

Andropogon + Bohlin Cywinski Jackson

Constitution Gardens
(Courtesy of Andropogon + Bohlin Cywinski Jackson)
Despite its proximity to the national monuments, Constitution Gardens has been neglected. Its primary feature, a pond, is stagnant, and its sidewalks are crumbling. But the design team of Andropogon + Bohlin Cywinski Jackson’s proposal promises to bring new life to the site. The designers suggest that a marketplace be constructed on the park’s north side, along Constitution Avenue. “It would really become a magnet for people in a way that nothing on the mall right now is,” says Kirk Savage, author of Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape. “It would be a really fun place to be.” Meanwhile, natural elements, such as wetland and a magnolia bog, would be incorporated to balance out the new infrastructure. This way, over time, species of birds, insects and mammals could return too.

Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architect + Paul Murdoch Architects

Constitution Gardens
(Courtesy of Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architect + Paul Murdoch Architects)
For Constitution Gardens, this design team recommends building a café, like a ramp rising out of the landscape, on the northwest side of the lake to take full advantage of views of the nearby Washington Monument. Across the lake, on the southeast end, there would be tiered performance seating.

Rogers Marvel Architects + Peter Walker and Partners

Constitution Gardens
(Courtesy of Rogers Marvel Architects + Peter Walker and Partners)
The team of Rogers Marvel Architects + Peter Walker and Partners transforms Constitution Gardens into a playground for all seasons. On the north side of the lake is a sunbathing lawn and on the south is a grass amphitheater with a stage. To the east is a pavilion with a restaurant looking out onto a circular basin—part of the lake that serves as an ice skating rink in the winter and a place to take model boats in the summer.

OLIN + Weiss/Manfredi

Constitution Gardens
(Courtesy of OLIN + Weiss/Manfredi)
Informed by the gardens’ location, on the same axis as the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of Natural History, the National Gallery of Art and the forthcoming National Museum of African American History and Culture, the design team of OLIN + Weiss/Manfredi envisions Constitution Gardens as a “museum without walls.” Boardwalks wind through the wetland edges of the lake, so that visitors can study urban ecology up close. An Outdoor Lab, or space for research, exhibition and education, is positioned on the lake’s northwest edge. The plan also encourages the arts with its inclusion of an oval-shaped floating stage off the lake’s southeast bank.

Balmori Associates + Work Architecture Company

Sylvan Theater
(Courtesy of Balmori Associates + Work Architecture Company)
The grounds just south of the Washington Monument have a lot of untapped potential. Balmori Associates + Work Architecture Company proposes carving Sylvan Bowl, a grass bowl theater, into the hillside facing a circular stage and the Washington Monument. (The theater would replace the largely defunct Sylvan Theater, just southeast of the monument.) Yet, the real “showpiece” of the team’s design, according to Savage, is a building, almost a figure eight in shape, that houses the Sylvan Restaurant, among other things. The edifice blends into the landscape. Trees sprout through its inner courtyards, and it has a green roof, where vegetables to be served in the restaurant are grown. “That would be very different for people,” says Savage, “to look at this as a working, agricultural landscape.”

Diller Scofidio Renfro + Hood Design

Washington Monument
(Courtesy of Diller Scofidio Renfro + Hood Design)
For this scheme, Diller Scofidio Renfro + Hood Design suggest “peeling up” the southern edge of the Washington Monument grounds and buckling it to create an undulating landscape. In the valleys, there would be lawns and amphitheaters where people could gather, and within the hills, there would be shaded spaces and a cafeteria.

Michael Maltzan Architecture + Tom Leader Studio

Washington Monument
(Courtesy of Michael Maltzan Architecture + Tom Leader Studio)
“A number of the designs are playing around with trying to frame interesting views of the monument,” says Savage. Perhaps the most dramatic, in this regard, is a design by Michael Maltzan Architecture + Tom Leader Studio that recommends a multipurpose facility with an oval oculus cut out of its roof to preserve the view of the Washington Monument. This scheme also includes a terraced amphitheater. Though unlike the other proposals, the theater faces away from the monument. The stage is equipped with an eye-catching canopy that expands in warmer weather to provide more shade.

OLIN + Weiss/Manfredi

Washington Monument
(Courtesy of OLIN + Weiss/Manfredi)
The design team OLIN + Weiss/Manfredi’s plan for the Washington Monument grounds focuses largely on performance space. Again, there is an amphitheater that faces a stage, this time covered by a trellis, and the monument. The designers emphasize that the venue can host a gamut of performances, from impromptu skits to concerts attended by thousands. The proposal also features an elevated walkway connecting the grounds to the Tidal Basin.

Diller Scofidio Renfro + Hood Design

Union Square
(Courtesy of Diller Scofidio Renfro + Hood Design)
In a proposal by Diller Scofidio Renfro + Hood Design, the reflecting pool in Union Square, just in front of the Capitol, becomes a “liquid medium for the visualization of the political process.” Live recordings of Congressional proceedings are translated into waves on the water’s surface. The public can add more ripples by talking into microphones at the pool’s edge.

Pei Cobb Freed & Partners + Workshop: Ken Smith Landscape Architect

Union Square
(Courtesy of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners + Workshop: Ken Smith Landscape Architect)
The huge flaw with Union Square, says Savage, is that its massive reflecting pool separates the Capitol Building and Grant Memorial from the National Mall. A proposal by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners + Workshop: Ken Smith Landscape Architect, however, provides a simple and elegant solution. “It takes the reflecting pool and turns it into an elliptical shape and then has these two footpaths across it that are on diagonals,” says Savage. “They create a diamond shape with the diagonal footpaths that go up towards the Capitol building.” A necklace of arched fountains surrounds the pool.

Gustafson Guthrie Nichol + Davis Brody Bond

Union Square
(Courtesy of Gustafson Guthrie Nichol + Davis Brody Bond)
This plan, by design team Gustrafson Guthrie Nichol + Davis Brody Bond, calls for a narrower pool than the existing one. The pool is crisscrossed by paved walking paths and flanked by terraces, sprinkled with trees and benches.

Snohetta + AECOM

Union Square
(Courtesy of Snohetta + AECOM)
From the National Mall, visitors ascend a set of steps to a gentle slope, bracketed by trellises, in Snohetta + AECOM’s proposal for Union Square. The trellises are meant to mimic the wings of an eagle. At the top of the slope is a bow-tie-shaped reflecting pool, cut by four walking paths.