Engaging Hallowed Ground: Re-envisioning the Arrival Ground of Arlington National Cemetery
Arlington, VA, USA
Amanda Ton, Associate ASLA
Faculty Advisor: Martin Poirier, FASLA
Harvard University Graduate School of Design
"This proposal both refines and redefines the currently fragmented and uninspiring arrival experience at Arlington National Cemetery, one of the most sensitive landscapes in the country, and is an example of the power of visual storytelling through landscape architecture. With great design and technical skill, the proposed scheme would create an emotional journey for those coming to the cemetery variously as mourners or tourists, or for events of commemoration, while ensuring that the arrival experience is legible and meets the considerable functional requirements of the site. A dramatic sunken memorial avenue lined by a waterfall, an underground welcome center, and plazas and landforms that ennoble the experience of visitors on foot, promise to restore dignity and grace to the gateway of the nation’s most hallowed ground."
- 2019 Awards Jury
Arlington National Cemetery has provided a solemn place to reflect upon the sacrifices made by the men and women of the United States Armed Forces since its founding in 1864. Yet years of accreted function and the rapidly expanding body of tourists visiting has generated an enormous burden to the capacity of the cemetery entrance, the once elegant arrival experience has now become fragmented and chaotic, failing to reflect the beauty of the cemetery. How can we reconfigure this basic rudiment of arrival into grace?
The proposal tries to redefine the starting point of this journey to the most hallowed shrine in the United States with elegance, respect, and function. Through careful vertical separation and elevation change, the proposal has expanded the capacity of the site, accommodated, and enhanced the arrival experience for all. The proposal has also addressed the administrative function of the entrance, including vehicular control, security checkpoints, crowd dispersal, and funeral service arrangement.
Context & Problem Analysis
Arlington National Cemetery is the country's largest military cemetery and serves as the final resting place of over 400,000 men and women. Founded in 1864 to accommodate the massive casualties from the American Civil War, the cemetery covers over 624 acres of land and is referred as the most hallowed shrine to the honored dead of the Armed Forces of the United States.
The arrival to Arlington National Cemetery over the Memorial bridge is a dramatic, power experience befitting the nations most sacred shrine. Located across the Potomac River from the National Capitol, the axial Memorial Avenue, designed by McKim, Mead and White architectural firm, crosses the Potomac River on Arlington Memorial Bridge, linking the end of the National Mall axis at the Abraham Lincoln Memorial to the Arlington House through the axis proposed in the McMillan Plan.
Yet time has not been kind to the original elegant arrival experience. Today, Arlington National Cemetery is not only a place for honor and remembrance. With an average of 25 burials performed each day, the active burial ground is also one of the most popular tourist destinations in the States, attracting more than 3 million tourists each year. Born in the carriage age, years of accreted function and the rapidly expanding tourist body has generated an enormous burden to the capacity of the cemetery entrance, with the newly enforced security screening being the last straw that broke the camel's back.
Currently, the cemetery has only one entry point – the axial Memorial Avenue that bridges from Washington DC to Arlington. Together with the newly imposed security checkpoints along the avenue, the bi-directional road has created a bottleneck and imposed heavy traffic burden as well as pedestrian and vehicular conflict to the arrival ground. In time of grief, funeral attendees have to make their way through traffic and stop at rudimentary control points to be screened for entry, while lines of traffic with cars and tour buses waiting behind impatiently. Signage and traffic cones are insufficient to overcome the confusing and chaotic traffic flow, the cemetery has to rely heavily on human staffing for directions.
In addition to the complex and overlapping circulation system, the undersized administrative building is also overburdened by clustered administrative function including the visitor security scanning. Funeral attendees, pedestrians, private vehicles, buses, Ubers, and tour groups, all jumbled together in a state of confusion and congestion, the once elegant arrival experience has now become fragmented and chaotic, failing to reflect the beauty of the cemetery.
The studio focused on one of the most complicated examples of the most basic design problem – how to get people to their destination – in a manner befitting the place. In this case, the nation's most hallowed shrine. The project began with researching historic archives to understand how the arrival sequence to Arlington has changed with the addition of urban infrastructure and modern interventions in the past century and a half. Worldwide precedent studies on sacred places arrival experience were analyzed, looking to define the attributes of a graceful experience.
The proposal tries to redefine the starting point of this journey to the most hallowed shrine in the United States with elegance, respect, and function. Five design principles are considered in the proposal:
- LEGIBILITY & DISPERSION: To provide an efficient and legible circulation system that disperses various modes of transit and user groups
- TRANSITION & ANTICIPATION: To provide an elegant transition from the commonplace to sacred, an experience that matches up with the beauty of the cemetery.
- SEPARATION & EXPERIENCE: To accommodate and acknowledge the co-existence of the Funeral attendees and Tourists, while narrate and enable an emotional journey for both parties.
- FUNCTION & CAPACITY: To redesign with the consideration of administrative function, to provide additional capacity for accommodating the current administrative burden.
- INTEGRITY & RESPECT: All while maintaining the integrity of the most hallowed ground and be respectful to the historical axis
The proposed design includes a new traffic circle that acts as a notation of turning at the axis of the Memorial Avenue, dispersing traffic into different destination; a welcoming plaza and amphitheater; an underground welcome center contains security screening and educational exhibition, with the roof physically split into half by the partially sunken Memorial Avenue cuts into the building; a funeral attendee and administrative area with densely planted periphery to visually screen all the tourist activities; a three-stories parking garage accommodating parking for tour bus, visitors and employees; and lastly, a tram station for the cemetery tour.
The design centers around the proposed sunken Memorial Avenue that cuts into the landscape as well as the proposed underground welcome center. Human being's relationship to the ground is profound, and especially in Arlington National Cemetery, where people buried their loved ones into the earth. Inspired by the inherent emotional feeling that resonates when moving into the ground, the design uses elevation change to create a unique spatial experience and physical separation for the conflicting visitor bodies.
The axial sunken memorial avenue is preserved for the funeral attendees. Together with the transitional walls and water feature along the ramp, lines of trees soften the hard edges and linearity of the axis. The depression on Memorial Avenue frames the axial view to the Arlington House and creates a moment of separation from all the traffic while heading to the cemetery, clearly marking the arrival to this sacred place.
Individual family waiting rooms are introduced adjacent to the funeral waiting lanes. The background landscape of endless rows of headstones and the Arlington House are borrowed to create a sense of serenity. Mounding and lines of trees act as a visual separator and provide a quiet moment for meditation and reflection.
Visitors are guided to the underground welcome center through plazas designed to provide an elegant experience and legibility. Located next to the drop-off area, landform in the visitor arrival plaza mimics the language of the cemetery. Enclosed but calming, the meandering paths are designed to create a sense of anticipation and to break up large crowds of tourists. Engraved concrete curbs echo with the JFK gravesite provide visual interest along the path. The sunken plaza connects the visitors exiting from the lower level of the parking garage to the welcome center, it is designed to facilitate pedestrian flow and to provide different seasonal visual interest.
Visitors travel across the site on a diagonal axis to the funeral attendees, with the seemingly overlapped area separated by elevation change. The spacious underground welcome center accommodates the expanding administrative function, providing room for security screening, educational exhibition, and administrative use. The central semi-translucent waterfall partially screens the visitors from seeing the funeral attendee on the sunken Memorial Avenue, at the same time, connects and acknowledges the co-existence of different parties in the cemetery, reminding the visitor that the Arlington National Cemetery is an active burial ground of honor.
Engaging Hallowed Ground: Re-envisioning the Arrival Ground of Arlington National Cemetery explores the power of design in narrating experience that befits the characteristics of the landscape. Oriented around a simple aspiration – to create a functional yet compelling space to prioritize and provide a dignified, graceful arrival experience for the families of the honored dead, while acknowledging and providing the capacity to the growing body of tourist visiting the Nation's most hallowed shrine. the proposal has expanded the capacity of the site, accommodated, and enhanced the arrival experience for all through careful vertical separation and spatial configuration.
Plant species are selected from the existing palette of the Arlington National Cemetery Memorial Arboretum.
- Ginkgo, Ginkgo biloba
- Japanese zelkova, Zelkova serrata
- Kousa Dogwood, Cornus kousa
- Pin Oak, Quercus palustris
- Red Maple, Acer rubrum
- River birch, Betula nigra
- Shumard Oak, Quercus shumardii
- Southern Magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora
- Sugar maple, Acer saccharum
- White Oak, Quercus alba