The National Capital Planning Commission and executive director Marcel Acosta (LF ’01) accomplished a hat trick in July with the approval of 3 nationally significant monument projects on the same day. It’s certainly unusual to have 3 on the same agenda, but these initiatives have been years in the making, and they share some key characteristics.
In each case the intention is to improve public benefit from an important civic asset, although the execution of that principle has not been without some challenges and controversy. The iconic Vietnam Veterans Memorial will be acquiring a Visitors Educational Center, designed by Ennead Architects. Congress stipulated that the Visitor Center, situated on the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial, had to be underground to minimize impacts on the Lincoln Memorial and the National Mall. Thus one design focus was to let in natural light and create a welcoming entrance without disrupting the landscape above or compromising safety.
The other 2 projects dealt with presidents: the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial. Steven Holl Architects designed the Kennedy Center expansion, the largest in the center’s 44-year history. Three new pavilions on the center’s South Plaza will increase theater support facilities–including rehearsal space, offices and classrooms–and more effectively connect to the Potomac River waterfront and Rock Creek with a pedestrian bridge. Funding for the ambitious plan was underwritten by David Rubenstein, CEO of the Carlyle Group who is also chair of the board of the Kennedy Center. (Rubenstein, who has taken the “Giving Pledge” to donate half his wealth to charity, was also responsible for underwriting repairs to the Washington Monument following the 2011 earthquake.)
Holl’s original plan called for a floating pavilion to provide optimal access to the river, but after concerns were raised by environmentalists and boaters, the pavilion was moved onto the shore. Acosta is pleased with the resultant compromise, which ensures the facility can be used year round as flexible performance space and café. Final design approval will occur this fall, and if all goes smoothly, the new pavilions will be ready for opening in 2018.
Since Congress created the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission in 1999, many aspects of the memorial have generated controversy, with early differences of opinion dwelling on creating a conventional versus “living” memorial (e.g., a think tank or generative program) and on the siting. Eventually the Eisenhower Memorial Commission settled upon a standard memorial on a plaza site surrounded by institutions connected to Eisenhower's legacy: the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Voice of America, and the National Air and Space Museum. The selection process generated a lot of noise, as did the original design by Gehry Partners, with congressmen, advocates, architecture critics and Eisenhower family members weighing in.
Acosta explains, “What distinguishes a memorial, whether it’s for an event or a person, from standard architecture is that there’s a narrative, a story, that the architecture has to reflect.” The family, naturally, wanted to ensure that the memorial was heroic. Further, it was controversial because it was modern architecture. “People had the same reaction with the Vietnam Memorial,” he says. “Every major memorial that has come through in recent decades has had an element of controversy. From the planning commission’s standpoint, we look at a couple of other issues: how well does it fit the neighborhood around it, and how does it balance public use with sacred space, because many of these memorials are sacred spaces.”
Gehry Partners made major modifications to address concerns. The 3 metal tapestries of the original proposal were finally reduced to one major tapestry. There were refinements to the statuary in the memorial court and the landscape elements were much improved. Acosta believes that with these changes, “it will turn into a magnificent park in this part of the city. It will work better as public space on a day to day basis as well as work as a great memorial in honor of Dwight Eisenhower.”
“We’re dealing with one of the most sensitive parts of our national landscape, the National Mall, and it does take an extraordinary amount of time and effort in order to ensure these things can be the best that they can be. I think the architects, the planners involved and the public worked very hard trying to ensure that these structures are great designs in and of themselves, worthy of their subject matter and worthy of the capital city.”