America’s front yard: Transforming the National Mall

THE majestic tranquillity of the National Mall in Washington, DC, has become frazzled in recent years. Funds for maintaining its lush greenery have shrunk, while more and more people scrap for a memorial or museum of their own on America’s hallowed ground.

The Mall is known as America’s “front yard”. Its monuments, memorials and museums have become the canvas on which Americans paint their identity, self-confidence and global ambitions. From the steps of the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial on the Potomac stretch two miles (3.2km) of grass and trees. A great cross axis, marked by the obelisk of the Washington Monument, descends from the White House to the picturesque Tidal Basin, famous for its blossoming cherry trees. Patches of earth made bare by the trampling of 29m visitors a year are so common that the tattered Mall is fast becoming a symbol of American decline.

Congress has approved costly new buildings but is stingy about maintenance. The turf is finally being upgraded and last year the restored Washington Monument reopened. Further transformation promises to be subtle, yet extraordinary.

At the edge of the Washington Monument, Weiss/Manfredi, an architecture firm, and Philadelphia-based OLIN, landscape architects, will warp the lawn sensuously upwards to form a grassy amphitheatre facing a stage that will have the great obelisk as its backdrop. The reworked Sylvan Theatre also tucks a leaf-shaped glass pavilion under a wing-like planted roof. It is at once a romantically inviting café, meeting place and porch for viewing the monument.

The $110m project is the work of a recently established non-profit organisation, the Trust for the National Mall. It is part of a plan to raise $350m that will match the federal government’s contribution and be dedicated to addressing a staggering $700m shortfall in delayed maintenance. “The Mall has not seen any significant investment in 40 years,” says Teresa Durkin, the trust’s senior project director.

Rogers Partners and Peter Walker Partners will oversee renovation of Constitution Gardens with a much richer mix of plantings to create an intimate refuge from the grandeur of the rest of the Mall. It replaces dying trees that surround a pond bilious with algae near the Vietnam Memorial. A large white-latticework pavilion will appear to float above the restored pond edge as a horizontal counterpoint to the Washington Monument rising above.

In addition to the $110m Sylvan Grove scheme, the trust needs to raise $160m for this project and for an operating endowment. (The remaining $90m will cover the smaller projects.) It has set itself a challenge. Other public bodies compete for the same pot of funds, including the Smithsonian, which wants to spend $2 billion over 20 years to renovate the museums lining the Mall. Some donors rightly question why private money must be found for government lands that are neglected by government. Yet the trust has already managed to raise $52.7m.

Preserving the Mall’s integrity also means contending with the ever-expanding infrastructure devoted to security. In 2011 two firms drew up a plan to rationalise the tangle of concrete barriers and guard shacks that encircle the White House grounds. A final plan has yet to be agreed.

The strangest and most anomalous building is the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, due to open in the autumn of 2016. A square wedding cake of outwardly tilting metal screens, it has risen near the Washington Monument and the White House. Designed by a Ghanaian-British architect, David Adjaye, together with two American firms, the Freelon Group and Davis Brody Bond, its silhouette, inspired by exuberant Yoruba art, contrasts with the classical stone solemnity of nearby buildings. The screens are fretworked to evoke the lightly curlicued 19th-century ironwork of southern cities, yet the dark bronze colour of the screens looks sombre.

In the 105,000 square feet (9,755 square metres) of galleries Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s director, has included a railway carriage with the comfortable section that was reserved for whites and bare benches where blacks were segregated. Some of the stories told are so discomforting that a room has been provided for contemplation. A veil of sun-dappled water falls from the edges of a skylight oculus in the ceiling. Portals cut through the metal-screen exterior open on to important views, including the Lincoln Memorial, where crowds stretching the length of the Reflecting Pool witnessed Martin Luther King deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963.

The $540m museum may be the last big new structure on the Mall. For years Congress has pledged to stop the proliferation of memorials that threaten to turn Washington’s monumental core into a virtual necropolis, though it has had trouble keeping that promise. Competing interest groups argue in terms of symbolic equity: how can the second world war and the wars in Vietnam and Korea be represented by memorials on the Mall and not the first world war, for example?

The pressure to keep on building on the National Mall will not go away. But the recent evolution brings a human scale and an appealing American idealism to spaces where self-conscious and overbearing grandeur have held sway for too long.