Decoding Design

Finalists in National Mall redesign contest announced

Posting in Architecture

The National Mall is often called America's front yard. That being the case, we're overdue for some serious yard work, which top U.S. architects are vying to perform.

The National Mall sees a lot of action -- it has more visitors each year than Yellowstone, Yosemite and Grand Canyon National Parks, combined. And it hasn't had a facelift since the bicentennial in 1976.

The Trust for the National Mall, the National Park Service's non-profit restoration partner, is heading an effort to restore three distinct parts of the Mall, including the Sylvan Theater at the Washington Monument and Constitution Gardens. On Wednesday, a jury of architects, professors and others from architecture community announced 18 finalists.

More than 1,500 architects and designers submitted applications for the contest to spruce up parts of the nation's capital. The finalists first round of 18 design teams were selected by a panel of judges that includes architects and professors. Six teams were selected for each of the three parts of the Mall to be renovated.

Notable among the 18 finalists are architects chosen from Pei Cobb Freed and Partner Architects, Diller Scofidio Renfro (known for its work on the High Line in New York City), Hood Design and Gustafson Guthrie Nichol. They'll be vying to work on Union Square, which encompasses the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial and the Reflecting Pool. (Elizabeth Diller is also one of six finalists selected to update the Sylvan Theater.)

The Trust is looking for building and landscape architects who can not only restore and reinvigorate the features in the park, but also design them to the accommodate the massive crowds they host -- upwards of 25 million visitors each year.

And unlike Yosemite's Half Dome or Yellowstone's Old Faithful, the Mall must facilitate many more activities outside of just footfalls and spectating. Three thousand events -- everything from inaugurations to political protests -- are held on the Mall each year.

The Associated Press has created an interactive map that shows some of the particularly worn out parts of the Mall. Keeping grass healthy on the Mall's lawn is a Sisyphean job, given the constant foot traffic it sees. Perhaps the new design will feature a material that's easier to maintain.

The contest is part of a larger initiative, the National Parks Plan, that was developed over four years and shaped by input from 34,000 people across the country, and based on research into how the best parks in the world are designed and managed. The plan was unveiled on year ago.

The contest will end in May 2012, but there's no completion date for the three restoration projects or the overall project, which is expected to cost about $700 million. Funding is to come from the trust, which is soliciting donations, and the NPS. The Mall is already facing a $450 million repair and maintenance backlog, part of a $9 billion backlog across the NPS.

Second stage designs are due December 1st, and those who will be moving on to the final round will be announced on December 15th.

Photos: (top) Flickr/Andrew Bossi; (second) Flickr/Intiaz Rahim

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Mary Catherine O'Connor

Contributing Writer

Mary Catherine O'Connor has written for Outside, Fast Company, Wired.com, Smithsonian.com, Entrepreneur, Earth2Tech.com, Earth Island Journal and The Magazine. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure