Essay Contest

During 2001, NARPAC became interested in drawing attention to various architectural and engineering problems that somehow detract from the ability of the nation's capital city to fulfill its latent promise as the ideal symbol of the American way of life. Metro stations that do not draw as many regular passengers as they should, railroad bridges and rights of way that haven't been modernized (or even painted) in 50 years; surface parking lots within view of the Capitol building; poorly boarded-up abandoned properties have all drawn pointed comments of physical things around the city that should be remedied.

In the hopes of drawing more attention to these readily fixable problems, NARPAC undertook to hold conceptual design competitions among architectural students in well-known local universities. Though attracting interest turned out to be far more difficult than anticipated, the first such competition was completed in the Spring of 2002. It turned out to be the most ambitious of those mentioned above: eliminating a giant obstacle course of intersecting highways and parking lots just south of the nation's Capitol building. The outline of the simple statement of objectives and description of the site is provided below:

Convert Rte395/Freeway Junction into Capitol Esplanade


A monstrous highway and railroad interchange, with adjacent surface parking lots, creates an impenetrable barrier to pedestrian, cycle, and vehicular traffic both East-West, and North-South. This barrier, virtually within sight of US Capitol, reduces access to nearby Metrorail stations, limits tourist exploration of DC away from the Mall, denies space for Capitol-related memorials and monuments, and discourages expansion of Federal Buildings into Southwest DC toward the Washington Channel.

Desired Solution:

Create an outline design of an extensive, multi-level construction, terracing, and landscaping project to eliminate barriers caused by highways and railroad to e/w and n/s access by foot, bike, vehicle And public transport. Provide extensive below-ground commuter and tour bus parking, transfers to and from public transport, and access to nearby gov't buildings; ground-level paths, streets, vistas, parks, and grounds for monuments and memorials; and above ground office, residential, commercial and non-profit space. Creative use of urban decks (as is now being developed for improving access to the Kennedy Center) and building tops will be given recognition.


o No more than two teams per college;

o products are to be limited to 10-32"x42" boards;

o submissions are due by March 31, 2002;

o award to be announced by April 15, 2002 (delayed to May 1, 2002);

o award ceremony to be hosted by a senior DC or Federal official;

o first prize team cash award: $1000;


The site location is indicated below outlined in yellow on a perspective map of the Capitol surrounds by Joseph Passonneau and Partners. The Capitol is at the top, the Southwest/Southeast Freeway bisecting the city lower center; the newly rebuilt Botanic Garden just north of the marked site; and South Capitol Street heads south off the map towards the Anacostia River (not shown). (Click map and thumbnails to enlarge)

The four lettered arrows on the map refer to the location and direction of the photos below:

(A) Rte 395 disappears underground as it goes north to its terminus on New York Ave. The structure of the revamped Botanic Garden shows in left background, with the west ends of the Rayburn House Office Building to the right. Getting there from here isn't easy

Only a hint of the expanse of (B) ten lanes of concrete shows in this photo looking west from the parking lot in front of the Ford Office Building to a much larger parking lot totally inaccessible across the highway to the east.

(C) One access road passes under the main CSX railroad line paralleling the Freeway. The Capitol dome shows above the "streamliner" passenger train heading south to Richmond and eventually to Florida: a dynamic cityscape arterial if properly highlighted.

(D) Looking north from under the Freeway in yet another parking lot, it is not obvious that north-south pedestrian/bicycle/jitney traffic could be re-established. NARPAC believes that some clever detail design could "reconnect" Delaware Ave and essentially eliminate this perceived "barrier", without rebuilding the major roadways.


All five major architectural schools in the Washington Metro area were invited to take part in the conceptual design competition described above. Only the Department of Architectural Design and Planning at the University of the District Columbia signed up, making it the focus of their Professional Studio Lab for the 2002 Spring semester. Two teams competed over the six-week period, using the first three weeks for cooperative collection of relevant site data, followed by three weeks of conceptual design and the preparation of presentation charts.

The National Capital Planning Commission, responsible for the development of all federal properties in the Washington metro area, generously agreed to provide a jury from their staff and the use of their chambers for the presentation and award. The event took place on May 1st and is recorded below. (Photos of the presentation and awards courtesy of NCPC; photos of student charts courtesy of UDC, montages by NARPAC)

Team B makes their presentation to the NCPC jury (upper right). Team A (lower left) takes the heat from the jury panelists. It was comprised of Thelma Knutsdottir from Sandararoker, Iceland and Moctar Ba, originally from Dakar, Senegal. Team B (lower right), made up of Toan Dong from Saigon, Vietnam, and native Washingtonian Nichele Marchal, got some equally tough questions

Team A presented the larger structures of the two designs, comprised of two buildings separated by a mall running east/west for pedestrians. Graduated building heights were proposed for the north building, with roof-top gardens at each level. The major face of the building looks south across the CSX railroad right of way. (In the interests of time, neither team explored connections across the Freeway.) Both teams provided parking below the deck and adjacent to the covered highway, commercial uses at deck level, offices above, and luxury apartments on the upper floors.

Team B took a significantly different approach. using a "Y"-shaped eight-story central building with its major entrance on Washington Avenue. The top four floors would be residential. It is surrounded by 4-story buildings around the periphery of the site, with three inner courtyards at deck-level covered by skylights. It offers attractive views in each direction toward the capitol, the Mall, and both rivers.

Following the presentations and grilling, the jurors met in an adjoining conference room (upper left) under the guidance of NCPC's Michael Sherman, who announced their decision (upper right). In a non-unanimous decision, Team B was declared the winner for various reasons ranging from the better proportionality of the structures to the suitability of the facades in the midst of other federal buildings. Prizes (checks and framed certificates) were awarded to both teams, who were photographed for posterity flanked by their UDC Professor, Clarence Peason (left), and NARPAC's white-haired president, Len Sullivan. Funding for the event and prizes was provided by a generous grant from the Helen Sperry Lea Foundation. Future design competitions are under consideration.

This page updated on Jun 5, 2002

homeissuesstatusanalyses email



© copyright 2007 NARPAC, Inc. All rights reserved