Our Manifest Destiny: Designing the National Mall
Constitution Gardens: Andropogon & Bohlin Cywinski Jackson. Credit: Trust for the National Mall.
Amid the controversy over the Eisenhower Memorial design, it
is both heartening and a bit frightening to see the designs produced by the finalists
in the National Mall Design Competition. The quality of the proposals is generally so high, the ambition so
vaunting, and the actual proposals such a promise of eschewing the monumental
for the natural that it makes you hope that this country will finally turn its
front lawn into a display of the actual landscape we inhabit, reshaped so as to
set off the great markers of how we turned that space into a democracy. I only fear that, whoever is selected, they
will have to confront the kind of reactionary forces that threaten any attempt
to ask what we really mean by a monument and what kind of spaces should mark
and make room for the values we share.
The competition is a private affair, organized by the Trust
for the National Mall with the collaboration of the American Society of
Landscape Architects and supported by private individuals, foundations, and
corporations. Its support seems to cut
across political lines, itself a rarity in Washington these days. Its program comes out of the belief that this
much-used, humongous, but not always beautiful stretch of mainly lawn that
leads from the Capitol down to Potomac (or should go that far) deserves
enhancements that will make it function both in terms of tourism and civic
uses, and let it be the symbolic spatial heart for the whole country. Within the framework set up by L’Enfant in
1791 and developed by Daniel Burnham in the early 20th century, and
according to a 2010 plan accepted by the Secretary of the Interior, the Trust
wants to see if instead of lawns, pools, and rows of trees, we could actually
have spaces that work.
Constitution Gardens: OLIN & Weiss/Manfredi. Credit: Trust for the National Mall.
From the looks of what the finalists turned it, we can. Almost all of them suggest some form of
bringing back the wetlands that once occupied this area, and using natural
grade changes to stage the way we see and approach the actual monuments. Only the scheme by AECOM and Snøhetta seems
to create a barrier and have recourse to an alien geometry, while Ken Smith and
Pei Cobb Freed & Partners fall into more familiar modes of grid planning.
Union Square: Snohetta & AECOM. Credit: Trust for the National Mall.
From Laurie Olin to Kathryn Gustafson, and from Diller
Scofidio + Renfro to WORK Architecture, the other schemes all share sinuous
waves of planting and water that create glades and places of respite within the
axis. Those same curves become paths that
let you approach the structures with a sense of drama. Several of the designs also hide amenities,
ranging from bathrooms to theaters underneath the rising or swerving landscape
forms. Though some (such as Diller Scofidio
+ Renfro) might be more exuberant than others, I was hard-pressed to find
fundamental differences between the designs.
The consensus, in other words, is that what the ultimate and
initiating act of gridding the newfound land of America needs is a retrieval of
the Edenic state it buried. It also should
enhance the grandeur of what humans have done by using the picturesque effects
native to landscape architecture. New
structures must be built with or under the land. A variety of spaces and scales can be
controlled not just with a grid, but mostly with continuous land forms and
Sometimes consensus is a good thing, but it is also the right
thing. It is also evident that landscape
architecture in this country has gained the high ground in terms of our ability
to envision civic space and framing. Now
that hard part starts. That would be not
so much picking the actual winners and raising the $700 million needed to turn
their proposals into reality, but the extension of a design-discipline
consensus out to a wider public in order to avoid the kind of reactionary
reactions and insertions of pointless orders that have marred everything from
the Martin Luther King to the Vietnam Veterans to the World War II
Memorials. This is a vision of a better
land. Let’s build it.