Rogers Marvel Architects (RMA) was selected on July 7 as the winner of a design competition to revamp President’s Park in Washington, D.C. The National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) announced that the New York-based architecture firm bested a distinguished list of landscape designers, including Hood Design Studio of Oakland, California, Michael Van Valkenburgh of Brooklyn, and Reed Hildebrand Associates and SASAKI, both of Watertown, Massachusetts.
Officials at the NCPC said the design competition was held to garner ideas about making a world-class public park, one where security is key but does not dominate the space. After 9/11, security design in major public spaces took on a new significance, and at President’s Park South—a large ellipse forming a public extension of the White House’s front lawn—this meant concrete jersey barriers and fences along E Street.
NCPC chairman L. Preston Bryant, Jr. praised RMA’s design as a bold statement about the possibilities of blending security and landscape design, one that offers a model for keeping public spaces open and inviting. Robert M. Rogers, principal at Rogers Marvel Architects, said of his firm’s proposal, “We talked about the change from an ambulatory romantic landscape at the front of the White House to a much more active space where people congregate for protests, the Easter Egg roll, the lighting of the Christmas Tree, and an overall much denser program for recreation and assembly.” Rogers stated that the new President’s Park South would “physically and conceptually connect the President and the people.”
Security perimeters are strategically layered throughout the landscape, forming a flexible boundary to accommodate a variety of security scenarios. RMA raised the central ellipse and placed an anti-ram wall that doubles as a bench around its perimeter; the bench seating faces the ellipse and helps define the iconic space. According to Rogers, this elevational tilting formally “presents” the ellipse lawn to the White House while also screening nearby parking spaces from the view of park goers. Punctuating the new perimeter wall are distinct pedestrian entrances with sculptured bollards to help guide pedestrian flow.
Pushing this security boundary to the ellipse’s perimeter allowed for the pedestrianization of E Street facing the White House. RMA vastly expanded the public space forming a large plaza—the E Street Terrace—flanked by leafy groves containing concession and maintenance structures. Rain gardens with natural vegetation to handle runoff from a perimeter parking lot provide a less formal counterpoint on the edge of the ellipse.
Funding has yet to be secured for the new park and several regulatory hurdles remain, including preparing an Environmental Impact Statement and moving through federal, local, and public review, a process that could take years. William Herbig, an urban planner at the NCPC said the National Parks Service and the United States Secret Service will review RMA’s design. Over coming months, elements of all five short-listed proposals could be incorporated into the final plan.
RMA is no stranger to blending security design seamlessly with the civic landscape. In New York, the firm created secure streetscapes in 2007 and 2010, near the World Financial Center in Battery Park City and on Wall Street, complete with anti-ram walls, public amenities, and sculptural bollards. Both spaces create a distinct pedestrian environment and permit service vehicle access. But Rogers was aware that his was the only non-landscape firm in the NCPC competition. “That’s why I wore a flowered shirt to the press conference,” he said.