Marlon Blackwell Architects has been selected to design the Global War on Terrorism Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The Global War on Terrorism Memorial Foundation (GWOTMF). As AN reported in May, five finalists were chosen from an initial list of 177 firms through a unique partnership process.
From the initial 177 firms identified in Summer 2022, the Foundations’ Design Advisory Board (DAB) filtered the list down to 98 firms based on “project experience, memorial experience, firm location, experience with Washington, D.C. agencies, etc., as well as ensuring ethnic and gender diversity and an equitable mix of architects, landscape architects, artists, and writers/thought leaders.” 37 of those firms were issued nondisclosure agreements in February 2023, 23 of which complied and received Request for Qualifications (RFQ). 17 firms submitted RFQs, from which the DAB chose five finalists: Marlon Blackwell Architects, BAU_Butzer Architects and Urbanism, James Corner Field Operations, Kengo Kuma and Associates, and Rogers Partners Architects + Urban Designers. Each design firm presented before the DAB and GWOTMF Board of Directors, the latter of whom made the final decision to select Marlon Blackwell Architects.
Marlon Blackwell told AN that while the firm does not typically engage in competitions, after being approached by the Foundation to submit a proposal, he reconsidered. “I think deep down, when you grow up in a military family, you’re a bit more circumspect about things like this,” Blackwell said, attributing the Foundation’s “genuine” approach to the memorial as important to the firm’s decision to engage with the competition.
As previously reported, the memorial will be built on a site between the in-construction Desert Storm and Desert Shield Memorial for the 1990–91 Gulf War, and the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial. This situates the Global War on Terrorism Memorial next to both the immediately preceding major military intervention in the Middle East, and another publicly-controversial conflict, Vietnam. Maya Lin’s now-famous design for the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial, while deeply controversial at the time of its opening in 1982, is now generally seen in a more positive light. Any design to a memorial for an ongoing series of conflicts will deal with a similar challenge—how will the public perceive the War on Terrorism, and its memorialization, in 40 or 50 years?
Throughout the process, no design plans or renders were submitted at the request of the client. Marlon Blackwell emphasized the importance of conveying the mentality of the firm’s approach to the memorial during the selection process, he told AN, and the potential to work with the Foundation as a partnership.
Moving forward, the Foundation has created a Design Advisory Council (DAC), which includes “Gold Star family members, veterans, and other Global War on Terrorism stakeholders.” The group will work with Marlon Blackwell Architects, sharing their experiences to help root the firm’s design. Foundation President and CEO Michael “Rod” Rodriguez, said that “the Design Advisory Council will help ensure that the Memorial reflects the experiences of all who have served and sacrificed in this ongoing conflict.”
Blackwell said that this process will involve “storytelling and listening to people tell their stories,” seeking to understand the range of experiences from the DAC members, and how to incorporate their views into one site. Blackwell added that the Foundation is seeking an apolitical memorial, which will guide the firm’s design, but did not shy away from the unique position of trying to memorialize the War(s) on Terrorism. “It’s an ongoing conflict, whereas all of the other memorials [on the Mall] have defined beginnings, defined endings… that unresolved nature of the conflict has to be addressed.” Blackwell told AN that he hopes the memorial can ultimately present a vision that is peace-seeking.
While the design process is just beginning, there are a few elements that stakeholders would like included. Water, for its ability to set a calming environment, will likely be a part of the site. Also, and uniquely for the Mall, digital elements will be incorporated into more traditional memorial elements and materials. Blackwell described the approach to the site as not forming just a built object, but “making a place.”
The memorial will be privately funded, and the Foundation is currently planning for a 2025 groundbreaking. With the Foundation receiving site approval from necessary state entities, the project has cleared many major administrative hurdles at this stage, though its proposed designs will still have to be reviewed by bodies like the United States Commission of Fine Arts. If the 2025 groundbreaking stays on track, the Foundation hopes for a dedication ceremony in 2027.