Beyond Buildings


Our Manifest Destiny: Designing the National Mall

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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 planting.


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.




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.