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]

About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D.