Reimagining the National Mall

Andropogon + Bohlin Cywinski Jackson also redesigns the topography of Constitution Gardens to create a "healthy and vibrant" lake at its center.
Andropogon + Bohlin Cywinski Jackson

(AP) WASHINGTON - Lakeside gardens, dining rooms hovering over water, grassy new amphitheaters and underground pavilions at the foot of the Washington Monument have emerged as finalists in a design competition to overhaul neglected sites on the National Mall.

Designers and architects are dreaming big for a chance to improve the place sometimes called America's front yard. One vision calls for a garden "museum without walls" in part of the mall called Constitution Gardens. Another would "peel up" the landscape of the Washington Monument to reveal a theater and visitor amenities below ground.

The Associated Press had an exclusive early look at the results of a competition conducted by the nonprofit Trust for the National Mall. The finalists' concepts will go on display Monday through Sunday at the Smithsonian Castle and National Museum of American History.

Since last September, architects and designers have been competing for the chance to make over areas near the Capitol, Washington Monument and Constitution Gardens, which was once imagined as a pastoral park near the Lincoln Memorial. It has since been left as a fetid pool with crumbling edges, surrounded by broken sidewalks. Each of the designs would bring major changes, adding amenities including food options and restrooms.

"The face of the mall is going to change quite dramatically," said Donald Stastny, an architect hired to oversee the competition. "If you're in Constitution Gardens, it's going to be cool, as opposed to `How did I end up in this place?"'

The nonprofit National Mall group aims to raise $350 million to help restore the mall, beginning with one of these sites. Former first lady Laura Bush joined the fundraising effort last year, and the group committed $875,000 to the design competition.

After sifting through entries from 32 teams, a jury picked four finalists for each of the three sites. Organizers are seeking public comment to help select a winner for each site in May. The group aims to build one of the designs, overhauling either Constitution Gardens or the Washington Monument grounds by 2016.

Midway through the competition, Congress voted to remove the third site from the National Park Service's property, citing security concerns. Union Square, which includes the Capitol Reflecting Pool and a memorial to Ulysses S. Grant, had been envisioned as a space for demonstrations or protests, but Congress placed it under control of the Architect of the Capitol and Capitol Police instead.

In Diller Scofidio Renfro + Hood Design's concept for the Sylvan Theater the landscape is figuratively "peeled up" to create a structure serving as an outdoor theater - a confluence of nature and artifice.
Diller Scofidio Renfro + Hood Design

Still, a winning design for it will be sent to congressional overseers. One option calls for a new reflecting pool that would send ripples from the House and Senate sides of Congress. On the other side, a visitor could speak through a microphone to send ripples back as a symbol of public discourse.

Caroline Cunningham, president of the Trust for the National Mall, said the group will assess the costs, the mall's needs, donor interests and other construction plans to determine which project will go forward first. The group aims to complete fundraising for the project in 2014.