A Winning Design for the National Mall

People / Places / June 25, 2013

For a project that’s yet to be green-lighted, Gustafson Guthrie Nichol’s (GGN) proposed redesign for Union Square on the National Mall is earning its share of accolades.

The project was one of three winning designs in the landscape design competition sponsored by the Trust for the National Mall and the National Park Service a year ago.  Now it’s been selected as a winner of the Environmental Design Research Association’s 15th Annual Great Places Award for Place Planning.

The newest award goes beyond acknowledging just the look of a project.

“It recognizes not just a building, but the design process and the thinking behind it that led up to the design,” says Rodrigo Abela, principal at GGN.

In this case, Abela and his associates re-thought the way that the Capitol and the little-known Grant Memorial relate to the rest of the Mall – especially the Lincoln Memorial and its reflecting pool.

The plan calls for the existing pool at the base of the Capitol to be demolished, and a new pool built and turned 90 degrees from what’s there now.  It will serve as an extension of the Mall, opposite the Lincoln Memorial.

“It honors the composition of the Grant Memorial as well as the Lincoln Memorial – it’s a link between the two,” he says.  “Grant is in the middle ground, with the capitol in background, and the piece of the pool that reflects the capitol is still there.”

Where the existing pool may be perceived as a barrier between the Capitol and the rest of the Mall, the new pool will offer access at a monumental scale, and with a grand, axial view.  “People will feel more connected to the mall and the Capitol,” he says.  “There will be more uses for events like the Fourth of July. Also, if we do it right, it will make more space for people – and a much more hospitable space for everyday use.”

The project is not without its sense of whimsy.  The landscape architects are calling for three paths that cut through the pond, eliminating any barrier east to west or north to south.  “There are two diagonal paths, and then Second Street is reinstituted as a pedestrian connection,” he says.

So for anyone viewing from a distance, people on the paths will appear to be walking on water.

The project is awaiting a go-ahead from the Architect of the Capitol.

For more information, go to http://www.ggnltd.com/

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Michael Welton
I write about architecture, art, and design for national and international publications. I am the author of "Drawing from Practice: Architects and the Meaning of Freehand" (Routledge, 2015), and the former architecture critic for the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C.

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