National Zoological Park
Dear Ms. Trowbridge:
In its meeting of 17 March, the Commission of Fine Arts reviewed the concept design for a new retaining wall between North Road and the General Services Building (GSB) in the Smithsonian Institution's National Zoological Park. The Commission appreciated the opportunity to inspect the site in the morning before its public meeting, as requested at the initial review of this project the previous month. Commenting on the difficult circumstances of this proposal, the Commission took no action on the submission and requested that an alternative design be developed to address their concerns.
The project team's presentation emphasized the proposed wall's relationship to a future multi-level parking structure to be placed above the GSB and in front of the wall, an addition that has been planned for decades but is not currently designed or funded. In their discussion, the Commission members noted that either the wall alone or the planned parking garage would constitute a large and potentially intrusive element adjacent to Rock Creek Park. They recommended careful consideration of the character of the wider context and the visitor experience—not only within the Zoo but also in the Rock Creek valley—in developing any further proposals for this area, expressing regret that the Zoo has typically located its support facilities adjacent to the National Park.
The Commission members emphasized the awkwardness of evaluating the current proposal: if the garage is to be constructed in the near future, they observed that the appropriate solution would be a simple, efficient design for the retaining wall—perhaps incorporating it into the garage design—with resources to be invested instead in the visible features of the garage. Under these circumstances, a consolidated design presentation of the wall and garage would allow an overall evaluation of the permanent appearance of a comprehensive project. In the absence of such a submission, the Commission members concluded that the proposed retaining wall should be designed and evaluated independently as a highly visible feature in the landscape.
Accordingly, while endorsing the goals of protecting the GSB from damage and the potential widening of the road—proposed to provide turning lanes and queuing for the possible garage—the Commission members requested that the Smithsonian develop an alternative design to address more sensitively the wall's relationship to the context. They recommended using various techniques to break down the wall's large scale—more than 1,000 feet long and up to 52 feet high—to maintain as much slope and landscape buffer as possible, which could be accomplished with such elements as berms and a series of smaller retaining walls.
The Commission looks forward to the review of a revised concept design that minimizes the visual impact of the retaining wall within the context of the Rock Creek valley. As always, the staff is available to assist you with the next submission.
/s/Thomas E. Luebke, FAIA
Associate Director for Planning
P.O. Box 37012, MRC 511
Washington, DC 20013-7012
cc: Don Pruitt, Quinn Evans Architects
Peter May, National Park Service