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Invisible Barriers
After getting by for too long with makeshift security arrangements at the Washington Monument, the National Park Service has embarked on a plan to do something more permanent—and more dignified.
By Vernon Mays

Seen through the lens of security, the Washington Monument is something of a sitting duckthe tallest structure in the nation's capital, fully exposed in a wide-open field of grass. So, in 1998, when the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were severely damaged by truck bombs, the specter of international terrorism was deemed too great to ignore any longer. The government core of Washington, D.C., took on the look of a city under siege.

Federal officials reacted with the Band-Aid approach, which meant to bring in the jersey barriersthose ugly gray concrete chunks used as highway dividersand place them like rows of sentries guarding the approaches to important public buildings. At the monument site, National Park Service (NPS) personnel dutifully marked off a 200-foot safety perimeter around the towering obelisk and set up two rows of the concrete barriers to thwart any explosives-laden vehicle attempting a death mission.

Accepted at first, the unsightly rings of jersey barriers began to draw criticism as they lingered on the nation's front lawn. In addition, the park service hurriedly fashioned a wooden structure at the monument entrance and installed equipment to begin screening tourists for weapons before allowing them in. The makeshift building was ridiculed mercilessly. "It is ugly and awful, but it does the job," says John Parsons, FASLA, associate regional director of the NPS. Functional or not, it was widely agreed that the park service needed to do something on the heavily visited site that was more permanent-and more dignified.

The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon only sped a discussion that had long been taking place. For nearly 20 years, officials had been studying the need for a visitor center at the monument. In the late 1980s, a building was even designed for the site, but it was never funded. Another proposal in 1993 generated consensus to build an underground facility using the existing Monument Lodgea small historic visitor services building made from stone left over from the monument's constructionas the entry to a new, enlarged visitor center, Parsons says. The events of September 11 gave these discussions a new urgency.

Congress weighed its options through October and decided to seek a solution to the 550-foot-tall monument's security and visitor needs through an invited competition. Because the restoration of the monument itself was still in progress, it was possible to add the improvements for the grounds to the contract without encountering lots of red tape, Parsons says. He identified four landscape architects and invited them to submit proposals. They were Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, Diana Balmori, ASLA, The Olin Partnership, and Henry Arnold, FASLAmost of whom allied with an architect for the purposes of the visitor center design. The teams were given a brief dictating that the visitor facility be underground and connected to the monument by a tunnel. It noted that people should enter through the lodge to avoid disturbing the landscape further. The program also required a 200-foot perimeter and urged that the design respect the historic greensward of the monument grounds. "It wasn't much more complicated than that," says Parsons.

The scope of the competition identified the historic grounds as a 73-acre site bounded by Independence Avenue to the south, Constitution Avenue to the north, 14th Street to the east, and 17th Street to the west. The area contains two additional buildings close to, but removed from, the monument. The Sylvan Theater, an outdoor amphitheater, is at the southeast corner of the site in a graded depression surrounded by a grove of trees. The Survey Lodge, also built of overstock stone from the monument's construction, houses a park ranger station southwest of the obelisk.

Laurie Olin, FASLA, whose Philadelphia firm, The Olin Partnership, was ultimately selected for the commission, says one of the issues that first struck him was the desire to maintain 24-hour pedestrian access near the monument. Olin says that the notion of an open society, with people being able to walk right up to the monument at any time of the day, was a critical consideration.

And it all was to be done on a fast track. Olin took the initial call from Parsons in November; the competition jury assembled to hear presentations on December 18 and rendered its decision in time for the Fine Arts Commission to approve the concept the following day. The Olin Partnership's proposal incorporated a series of design objectivesranging from enhanced security to preservation of the cultural landscapeto be accomplished with two broad strokes. First was the solution for vehicular barriers and, second, the treatment of the landscape in a way that would "finish" the design of the National Mall.

When he started work on the competition, Olin says he almost immediately knew how to handle the vehicles. "I thought if we put the barrier 200 feet from the monument, as suggested, it would be right in the middle of the hill." He wanted instead to place it at the toe of the hill, so visitors see the full sweep of the landscape rather than one that is broken in the middle. Hence, Olin's plan extends the security perimeter to 400 feet so that people perceive the continuous rolling topography.

The proposed barrier is a 30-inch-high reinforced concrete wall backed by the solid earth of the monument hill. This wall, reminiscent of the low stone walls designed by Calvert Vaux at the U.S. Capitol grounds, will be faced with rough-split granite cladding and finished with a two-foot-wide granite cap. The base of the wall is to be extended some 20 inches to provide a footrest.

Located at the base of the mound, the security walls will direct pedestrian traffic to four locations where curved paths rise between segments of the wall. Olin notes that, to achieve the proper grade for wheelchair accessibility, the paths needed to be longer than a straight line would allow. So the graceful curves were positively influenced by the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Operable bollards at the bottom of the paths will allow authorized service and emergency vehicles to reach the monument.

The proposed design subtly reshapes the mound to incorporate the new paths. The creation of two missing paths toward the German American Friendship Gardenan unfinished project along the Constitution Avenue edge of the groundswill provide greater access from off site to the accessible walkways and a new circular plaza surrounding the base of the monument. In keeping with the master plan for the grounds, the intrusive surface parking lots that degrade views of the White House, the Jefferson Memorial, and the monument itself are to be removed.

Important axial vistas along the length of the mall led the landscape architects to take pains to screen the wall from distant views from the west. A slight rise in the lawn's grading between the wall and 17th Street was created in a manner similar to the ha-ha barriers seen by Olin at English and French country estates. The topography and the Monument Lodge screen long views of the walls from the east.

For the architectural design of the visitor center/ screening facility, Olin teamed with Warren Cox of Hartman-Cox Architects in Washington, D.C. They examined two schemes-one that would use the Monument Lodge as a portal to a screening center and connect to the monument underground, and a second that studied the possibility of a link between the Sylvan Theater and the monumentan idea that in the end was dismissed as inelegant and more difficult to accomplish, and thus less likely to be a winning competition entry.

Although some have challenged the plan's wisdom, Olin insists the below-grade solution for the visitor services and screening facility makes good sense from both aesthetic and security standpoints. The scale of building needed for the prescribed functions would intrude on the mall, he says. And a below-grade solution seemed the best way to keep the screened people separated from the unscreened ones. Otherwise, how would people be transported up the hill securely? With guards? Between fences? In an armed bus?

The proposal for a tunnel leading from the visitor screening area into the base of the monument has stirred controversy, but Parsons endorses the underground approach enthusiastically, noting that security consultants believe visitors will be more secure underground than standing in line outside. "An underground facility is not a good terrorist target," Parsons says. "Terrorists are more interested in the published images of carnage in the foreground of a large landmark." And the tunnel option offers the opportunity to shut off the passageway and limit access to the monument if it is stormed, Parsons says.

While the monument grounds today appear stark in relation to other parts of the mall, the history of the site reveals a long-standing desire to make more of the landscape. Numerous styles have been recommended, from the picturesque park proposed by Robert Mills in 1841 to a more pastoral one by A. J. Downing in 1851. In 1902, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., Daniel Burnham, and Charles McKim proposed an Italianate ensemble of terraces, stairs, fountains, and aerial hedges. This ambitious scheme was followed later by the pastoral visions of Henry Hubbard and Olmsted Jr. in 1932, Thomas Jeffers and Elbert Peets in 1948, and the more sylvan version of Dan Kiley and Nat Owings of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in 1965.

While subsurface soil conditions led to the abandonment of the grandiose terraces proposed in 1902, the drives, parking lots, and softball fields of the postwar era were partially achieved. Extensive groves proposed by Kiley and others in the 1960s and 1970s never were realized either, whether for lack of funding or a reluctance to compromise the open lawn that is heavily used for recreation, large public events, and mass demonstrations. "Lots of hands have tried to resolve this landscape," Olin says.

Nevertheless, his office is trying to accomplish what it can with a single security project that is relatively narrow in scope, proposing the restoration of 70 street trees, replanting flowering groves with 55 new specimens, and adding 200 forest canopy trees to provide clumps of shade. Resolving the conflicting geometries of past initiatives made the exercise all the more difficultall while protecting eight softball fields that see heavy use in summer. "The personal feeling is that in Washington, D.C., as the center of power of the most powerful nation in the world, to see Americans out there in their T-shirts playing ball keeps us humble," Olin contends. "It's a kind of reality check."

A limited amount of negative reaction has caused delays in the process, but the project continues to move ahead, says Parsons. For now, Olin is continuing apace with his contract to deliver detailed design drawings by the time of this publication. At the meeting of the Fine Arts Commission in May, the only thing members quibbled about was the paving pattern of the area right around the base of the monument.

While working on one of the nation's most high-profile sites is a rare opportunity, it comes with special challenges and responsibilities. "We really take the charge of the Washington Monument very seriously because of its importance in the collective memory of this country," says Kate John-Alder, ASLA, an associate at The Olin Partnership and designer on the project.

"So the challenge is making it so it is not just a design about security, but a design about a public space that is culturally important and can be enjoyed."

Parsons sees the crux of the problem to be how to create a barrier through the manipulation of the landscape rather than relying on architectural solutions. That, he says, is why he chose a landscape architect to lead the project. "It's simple to me. It's a landscape that, unlike any other we manage, has never been designed. It just kind of happened. So this is finally the opportunity to design a large open landscape to finish this place, but not to impose on it, because of how we cherish its openness."

Vernon Mays is the editor of Inform, the architecture and design magazine of the Virginia Society of the American Institute of Architects.


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