D.C. Dating Game


Courtesy Photo Phiend/Flickr

Today the nonprofit Trust for the National Mall announced the Stage II winners of the National Mall Design Competition, which asks entrants to redesign three key sites within the iconic national park in the heart of Washington. Fifteen long-list teams have been narrowed down to 10—four per site, with two teams assigned to two sites each (OLIN & Weiss/Manfredi and Diller Scofidio Renfro & Hood Design; a full list of the finalists can be found on the Trust’s website.)

Snohetta, one of the Stage II finalists, is an exotic name in straitlaced Washington: “This is a super-weird list for Washington, D.C.," said Dan Wood, principal of WORKac, back in November. But the competition has proved unusual in other ways, too. When he made that comment, Wood was standing in a room full of fellow contenders, ringed by tables, behind which stood acclaimed architects and landscape architects: Michael Arad, Ken Smith, Rob Rogers, Alex Krieger, Tom Leader, and Wood himself, among others.     

Most of the designers had traveled from points north or west for the meet-up, sponsored by the Trust. All were selected as long-list finalists on Oct. 26 and were fleshing out their project teams for overhauling one of the oldest public spaces in the country. Veteran competition manager Donald Stastny was running the show, helping the name brands to hook up with talent from the D.C. area. Lead designers were encouraged, but not required, to attend.

Stastny told AN that he pioneered this kind of event a decade ago during design competitions for U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where local input was desirable but security issues, paramount. "It was tremendously successful, and since then, we’ve included it in our [U.S.] competition rollouts," said Stastny, who was also point man on the Disney Concert Hall and Flight 93 Memorial competitions. Stastny pointed out that these mixers are also "a way of making contacts that may pay off down the line, if not necessarily on this project." (The jury includes architects Thom Mayne and Craig Hodgetts, landscape architect Elizabeth Mayer, and former Washington Post critic Benjamin Forgey.)

New contacts, however, were scarce for the first half-hour, so designers took the opportunity to meet and greet each other. Rob Rogers of Rogers Marvel Architects in New York, caught up with landscape architects Ken Smith and Gary Hilderbrand. "The competition environment is healthy and inspiring for everyone… You enjoy your competitors," he said, noting that they’re just as often working together on projects as competing against each other, and that seeing them all gathered in a room is a stark reminder of the talent he’s up against. (Rogers, Smith, and Dan Wood have now made it to the final round; Hilderbrand, alas, did not.)

When the local networkers started to arrive, conversations along with the pastries and the coffee flowed. Steven Phillips, a vice president of estimating at Maryland-based James G. Davis Construction Corp., came to scope out who was involved.

About 90 minutes into the two-and-a-half-hour event, Michael Arad and his partner Barbara Wilks had "met a few people"; if any were dream dates, he wasn’t letting on. Across the room, Warren Byrd was precise about the skill sets he wanted and how the people coming through the door matched up. Because his team’s lead architect, Paul Murdoch, is based in Los Angeles, the partners need a local architect in D.C. as well as "a few more technical specialists," Byrd said. So far that morning, he had seen local architects, landscape architects, cost estimators, and consultants, but not the technical experts. (Arad and Wilks’ team was not selected to advance to Stage III; Byrd’s was.)  

After a competition briefing in Washington, the Stage III teams will have 11 weeks to create a design concept for their assigned site or sites. The concepts will be exhibited to the public, and winners will be announced in May.

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