Dear Mr. Whitesell:
In its meeting of 18 October, the Commission of Fine Arts was pleased to hear an information presentation on the winning designs of the National Mall Design Competition, sponsored by the Trust for the National Mall, for Constitution Gardens and for the Sylvan Theater on the Washington Monument Grounds. The Commission commended both design teams for the compelling quality of their proposals and for their intention to enliven these areas, and made the following comments.
The Commission members expressed their overall support for the innovation and imagination demonstrated in these two projects for key sites on the National Mall. However, they expressed a general concern about the two park areas being treated as discrete landscapes–both with changes proposed to increase their seclusion–which may be in conflict with the fundamental character of the National Mall as an open and democratic space. Therefore, they recommended careful consideration of these projects as part of the larger National Mall landscape and the urban context of Washington as the designs are developed. They recommended that, with so many forthcoming changes to the National Mall (such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Center, the National Museum of African American History and Culture,the Potomac Levee, as well as these new proposals), the National Park Service create a continuous physical model to explore these designs as they relate to each other within the landscape and urban context.
The Commission members commended the design team for its recognition of the Modernist legacy of Constitution Gardens and the intention to rebuild the park informed by current practices of sustainability. While they supported the idea of amplifying the existing topography of the site, they questioned the extent to which the height of the surrounding berms should be increased, and cautioned against overly isolating Constitution Gardens from the city and the larger Mall landscape. They recommended a thorough exploration of specifics, such as the height of the proposed berms, the locations of openings, and the views to and from the adjacent streets, noting that the success of the design will be contingent upon such nuances. The Commission members also commented that the proposal to construct an elegant restaurant pavilion would enhance the experience of visitors to West Potomac Park but they raised concerns about the large scale of the building, its degree of transparency, and the difficulty in providing vehicular service without great impact on the landscape.
The Commission members described the proposal for the Sylvan Theater as a beautiful design that could provide desirable amenities within this iconic setting. However, they reiterated their concern about the relationship of a large and complex project to the open space of the Mall around it. They advised further consideration of how to balance improvements with impacts: the design may effectively block the sight of buses at the expense of obstructing views for arriving visitors; the overpass may allow easy passage over Independence Avenue while creating a visual barrier within the Monumental Core. They suggested studying the following: the scale of the proposal, including the height of berms and their impact on views both to and from the site; the relation between the engineered slope and the existing slope of the Monument Grounds; and how the area would appear when empty of people or activity. They advised keeping an appropriate balance between the project's constructed and sylvan features, warning against the loss of the existing sylvan character as a result of the design. They noted that the design impact of technical requirements such as lighting, staging, delivery, and other services may be greater than what is anticipated in the renderings, and they strongly recommended that the project be developed with a management plan that addresses operational needs that may include temporary and service structures.
The Commission of Fine Arts thanks the National Park Service and the Trust for the National Mall for their leadership in the goal of enhancing this iconic landscape. The Commission appreciates the opportunity to comment on the winning designs and looks forward to future submissions. As always, staff is available to assist you in their development.
/s/Thomas E. Luebke, FAIA
Steve Whitesell, Regional Director
National Park Service, National Capital Region
1100 Ohio Drive, SW
Washington, DC 20242
cc: Caroline Cunningham, Trust for the National Mall
Robert Rogers, Rogers Marvel Architects
Adam Greenspan, PWP Landscape Architecture
Marion Weiss, Weiss/Manfredi
Skip Graffam, The Olin Studio
Peter May, National Park Service