What do you do with 50 acres of under-utilized, poorly maintained land in downtown Washington DC? When the site is the grounds of the Washington Monument, planning ignites a nearly existential debate. Yet one organization has set out to envision a fresh design for the grounds and the monument with an unofficial "ideas competition" that will kick off later this summer.
Despite more than 200 years of unfulfilled designs that include creating museums, lakes, universities, a paved plaza, and World's Fair space, the land surrounding the monument - the focal point of the Mall and most important tribute thereon - remains largely unimproved, unplanned, and dilapidated. The National Ideas Competition for the Washington Monument Grounds hopes to bring attention to that and "develop innovative and creative ideas for making the Washington Monument grounds more welcoming, educational, and effectively used by the public." The competition will launch this summer, accepting any and all ideas about how to better use the space and (maybe) pay tribute to the first president, with submissions due October 31, 2010. Organizers hope to narrow submissions to five finalists by next summer and submit those contenders to a public vote.
Obstacles to adoption of the winning ideas are daunting. The land is administered by the National Park Service (NPS), which would have to support the plan, which would then have to be signed off by Congress, the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) and the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts, none of which have even endorsed the competition. NPS has already devised plans to renovate century old Sylvan Theater, and the Army Corps of Engineers plans to work on a levee system for the northwest corner of the grounds.
Leaders of the competition, however, are more animated by the debate and thought provocation than by a redesign that would actually stick. Jim Clark, President-elect of the Virginia Society of the AIA and Chair of the steering committee, says the project is "mostly an educational forum, that's why we've opened it to younger students as well." Clark has been leading design competitions for 15 years and sees a larger purpose. "This will generate interesting dialogue about the center of our capital city, and will help educate people about history, about planning, and about the status of the National Mall."
As to the choice of this quadrant of the Mall, Clark answers that "this is really the heart of the National Mall. Symbolically it should be the richest area of the Mall from an interpretive standpoint. The mall has many many needs and will continue to evolve. We're really looking at this competition broadly to assess what role the monument grounds should play in the future." Ellen Goldstein, Executive Director of the steering committee, notes that the intent is not to actually transform the Mall. "We don't have any intent to advocate or lobby for the ideas to be implemented" she says of the winning design, though adding that it "could lead to be a transformational process ultimately, even though it is not a stated objective."
The grounds surrounding the monument have changed little over the years, despite the numerous grandiose ideas by accomplished architects. In the early 20th century a public pool graced the northwest corner of the site, and mid-century government office buildings packed the foot of the monument until they were torn down in 1960. Following the terrorist attacks of September 2001, a circular security perimeter was added to the landscaping, which otherwise looks much like it did when the land was originally reclaimed from the Potomac in the late 1800s.
The steering committee has already selected five of the judges and expects to announce the full panel of judges shortly, whose job it will be to determine what good design will never be built.
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