Reed Hilderbrand Associates

The National Capital Planning Commission announced five finalists in a design competition to revamp President’s Park South yesterday. Here, a proposal from Watertown, Mass.-based Reed Hilderbrand tries to make the Ellipse (an employee parking lot for the White House with a big lawn in the middle) more inviting to the public.

Rogers Marvel

The concept from New York-based Rogers Marvel emphasizes public activity along E Street.

Rogers Marvel Architects

Like all the other proposals, it’s replete with thinly veiled security features. Note the granite bench, which doubles as an anti-ram fortification, and the bollard stuck in the middle of the stairs.

Rogers Marvel

Like all the other proposals, it’s replete with thinly veiled security features. Note the granite bench, which doubles as an anti-ram fortification, and the bollard stuck in the middle of the stairs.

Hood Design Studio

The Oakland, California, firm of Fast Company Master of Design Walter Hood gave its proposal the optimistic name "Democracy’s Front Porch," the idea being to "establish a front porch for the practice of our First Amendment rights, for visitors to view the ellipse and White House grounds in open, aesthetically pleasing environment." The design also includes a 3-foot tall, 400-foot-long Ha-Ha wall.

Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

New York-based MVVA plans to include lots of foliage -- but not too much, lest it ruin sight lines to terrorists lurking under the tree canopy.

Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

New York-based MVVA plans to include lots of foliage -- but not too much, lest it ruin sight lines to terrorists lurking under the tree canopy.

Sasaki Associates

Sasaki’s proposal is another one with a cheery name: "Reconnect + Place." It’s designed to create a new public plaza and afford clear views of the city’s landmarks between the White House and the Mall. It’s also loaded up with security features: granite benches, planters with 3-foot-tall walls, and more.

Sasaki Associates

An overhead view

Co.Design

All-Star Designers Try To Make White House Park Less Fascist

Key word: try.

The National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) yesterday announced finalists in a design competition to revamp a patch of land between the White House and the Mall. The proposed designs, by some of the most prominent landscape architects in the country, represent a valiant effort to pretty up a high-security stretch of the Capitol including parts that've been on lockdown since 9/11. They feature shady trees and public promenades and aspirational names (for instance, ?Democracy's Front Porch"). It's like putting a lace doily on an anvil.

Such is the legacy of 9/11 in D.C. The competition brief asked architects to balance a welcoming public interface at President's Park South -- between the White House grounds and Constitution Ave NW -- against the Herculean demands of White House security. Five of 23 original submissions made the cut. The firms, all American, are: Sasaki Associates, the studio of late landscape starchitect Hideo Sasaki; Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), the architects redesigning the grounds of the St. Louis Arch; Hood Design Studio, helmed by 2010 Fast Company Master of Design Walter Hood; Reed Hilderbrand Associates; and Rogers Marvel Architects.

These landscape architects vary wildly in background and experience. Which makes it even weirder that, once you wade through the fancy footwork of their rhetoric, their visions are hard to tell apart. Many proposals appear to improve pedestrian access and sight lines in the area. MVVA's has lots of foliage. Sasaki's creates a new public plaza. But mostly, the efforts here seemed trained on dressing up safety measures as something else: barricades as benches, walls as public spaces, and so on. This is a testament not to the dearth of the architects? creativity, but to the extreme constraints of the task at hand.

The NCPC have invited the public to weigh in on the proposals (available online), and for this, we tip our hat to them. At least they're trying to project the appearance of a democratic process. Ultimately, though, the winner will be selected by the NCPC Interagency Security Task Force and announced June 30. Then, as NCPC's website says, the results of the competition "will inform the development of alternatives for President's Park South that will be undertaken by the National Park Service and the United States Secret Service." Is it just us, or does it sound like they're saying that Ranger Rick and the government's goons are free to do to the design whatever they want? That's a terrifying thought.

[Images via NCPC]

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2 Comments

  • Scott Sowers

    It's interesting how a story about improving a park is populated by "Fascists," and "government goons." Perhaps if the editor noticed that E Street borders the backyard of the White House, she might not be so terrified by the notion of the need for security.  The Park Service is in charge of our parks, which includes President's Park.  The Secret Service is in charge of keeping the president safe.  Why is it so outrageous that they would have a say in the redesign?     

  • Daniela

    It's a sad fact of competitions that designers do all this great work and then clients do whatever they want anyway, but I love that the federal government is promoting park design at such a prominent level.