30 January 2014
Dear Mr. Wilburn:
In its meeting of 16 January, the Commission of Fine Arts reviewed a concept design for the People's Garden site improvements and perimeter security plan at the headquarters complex of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), located at 14th Street and Independence Avenue, SW. The Commission did not take an action, expressing concern with many aspects of the design and requesting further development of the proposal.
The Commission members reiterated their support for the USDA's goal of transforming the site into an interpretive landscape on the Mall. However, they noted that the wide–ranging goals for the site–to create a productive landscape, to interpret the history of American agriculture, to honor the historic landscape design, and to accommodate a variety of uses from parking to food markets–require a clear and rigorous concept to create a coherent design. Instead, they observed a lack of consistency in the design character of the many disparate elements–modern trellises, historicist guardbooths, passive lawns and parking courts, edible gardens, exhibit panels–which compete with one another rather than forming a related whole. They found that the result is a design that lacks a clear relationship to the USDA's historic architecture and lacks the dignity appropriate for a landscape adjoining the National Mall.
To clarify the conceptual basis for the site design, the Commission members provided several recommendations. Noting that the proposal was described as being based on historic planning documents by the Olmsted Brothers firm, they expressed concern that the logic and analysis of this conjectural historic plan were not adequately presented. They acknowledged that the historic Olmsted planning could provide the coherent framework for a new landscape, but they suggested that a more carefully defined philosophical approach toward history and rehabilitation is critical to ensure that the new design is compatible with the context. Commenting that landscape typologies could be used to inform the design, they suggested studying precedents such as the tradition of botanic gardens presenting a variety of different garden spaces.
The Commission members made further comments about some components of the overall design. They expressed general support for the proposal for the streetscape of the South Building, but they requested more information about the details of the curbside exhibit and how the historic narrative could be extended in time. As the design is developed, they recommended considering more carefully the relation of the landscape elements to the formal qualities of the Whitten Building and commented specifically that the heirloom garden trellis is an extraneous and unnecessary feature.
The Commission looks forward to the review of a new concept proposal for this nationally prominent project. As always, the staff is available to assist you with the next submission.
/s/Thomas E. Luebke, FAIA
Curtis Wilburn, Jr., Director of Operations
cc: Robert E. Snieckus, U.S. Department of Agriculture
Last Modified: January 31, 2014