Change is coming to 'America's front yard,' the National Mall

Medill News ServiceApril 15, 2012 

WASHINGTON — The National Mall is getting a facelift.

From voice-based water sculptures to an undulating landscaped theater, the space that some call "America's front yard" is on track to change. The Trust for the National Mall — the National Park Service's nonprofit partner dedicated to restoring the country's most-visited park — last week unveiled 10 finalists for a competition to redesign Constitution Gardens and areas near the Washington Monument and U.S. Capitol.

The proposals aim to balance preservation with modernization, addressing basic maintenance, accessibility and security issues while incorporating wetlands, amphitheaters, reflecting pools and other flourishes.

The designs feature contemporary updates in landscaping, recreation and dining. In the not-too-distant future, a visitor to the mall might sip coffee at a glass-paned cafe overlooking cascading water. In the winter, a visitor might go ice skating on a rejuvenated pond at Constitution Gardens.

"We're trying to restore the mall to its former grandeur," said Carol Johnson, spokeswoman for the National Park Service. "It's a very loved place that we want to preserve."

So much so that it's been "loved to death" — a phrase that permeates the trust's marketing. The last significant investment in the well-worn expanse of monuments and parkland between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial took place in 1976.

"Sidewalks are crumbling, lighting is broken (and) there really aren't enough visitor facilities for 25 million annual visitors," said Molly Wade, manager of marketing and communications for the trust.

The focus of the upgrades, the first of which is slated to roll out in 2016, is on improving the experience of visitors.

"We've got a lot of people coming through here and we wanted to make sure that in each space the visitor was experiencing the space in the most robust way possible," Wade said.

More than 1,200 designers and design teams from 10 countries and 30 states registered for the competition. A jury of eight experts — in fields ranging from architecture to historic preservation to graphic design — will select a winner for each site from the 10 finalists that remain.

The trust has raised $9 million in donations toward its goal of $350 million in private revitalization funds. Former First Lady Laura Bush signed on last year in an honorary role to support fundraising. Private money is scheduled to be matched by federal funds to reach a total goal of $700 million.

Originally designed by the French-born American architect Pierre Charles L'Enfant in 1791, the mall served for many years as a sparse, scenic landscape. As the nation grew, so did the mall, transforming into a civic meeting ground that now handles 3,000 events each year and more visitors than Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon combined.

Market research done by the trust in 2011 showed that at least half of Americans will visit the National Mall in their lifetime.

The idea of changing elements of the mall is nothing new, according to Kirk Savage, author of the book "Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape."

"If you actually look at the history of this landscape, it has been constantly evolving over time," said Savage, a professor of the history of art and architecture at the University of Pittsburgh. "To try to freeze it in one particular formation or one particular kind of design vision, I think is really misguided."

Savage, who isn't officially affiliated with the design competition, praised the emphasis on water, biodiversity and the environment featured in many of the design proposals.

"These would be in a way demonstration landscapes that would really change people's thinking about how a park can function and what it can look like," said Savage. "It would perform a real educational function, particularly on the issue of ecological sustainability."

Some designs reflected the ideals of democracy and civic discourse. A proposal by the design studio Diller Scofidio Renfro and Hood would let visitors speak into a microphone that translates the reverberations of their voice into water waves at Union Square, just west of the Capitol. Microphones would also be placed in both houses of Congress capturing the real time tenor of the democratic process and transform it into a moving water sculpture.

"This is our national meeting place, the place where we come together as a nation," said Michael J. Lewis, a professor of American art and architecture at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass.

"The mall reflects precisely what we've become and who we want to be, for better or worse."

(The Medill News Service is a Washington program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.)

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