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Competition: National Mall flood defences, Washington DC

An open international ideas competition has been launched for new flood mitigation measures along the iconic National Mall in Washington DC (Deadline: 5 August)

Open to all multidisciplinary teams of students and professionals, the contest seeks proactive mitigation strategies for low-lying waterfront areas of the landmark green space.

Overlooking the Potomac River and a tidal lagoon, the mall connects The White House, Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial and Capitol Hill Senate, receiving more than 33 million visitors every year.

National Mall Image by Johnny Bivera

National Mall Image by Johnny Bivera

According to the brief: ‘Storms severely impact low-lying communities, causing billions of dollars in damage. It is recognized that these catastrophic events are becoming commonplace and require proactive solutions.

‘With this recognition comes the opportunity for open discourse and design leadership. Project proposals are intended to be creative and visionary.’

First conceived by French architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant in 1791, the mall was laid out in the early 1850s following plans drawn up by architect and horticulturalist Andrew Jackson Downing.

The high-profile green space was then enlarged and reorganised in 1901 in line with the McMillan Plan which introduced wider boulevards.

McMillan Plan

McMillan Plan

McMillan Plan

Today the three kilometre-long park is home to various high-profile monuments and institutions including the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial and the Smithsonian Institute.

Frank Gehry’s competition-winning proposal for a new $150 million USD Eisenhower memorial close to the National Mall was approved last year despite doubts over its funding.

Participants must select one of three monuments sites – the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial or Martin Luther King Jr Memorial – for their designs. Proposals should enhance historic sites and sensitive ecological and urban networks in the area.

Digital submissions should include up to ten A3 pages featuring both text and images. Teams may include up to six members excluding any academic or professional advisors.

The competition is organised by Open Architecture Collaborative – Washington DC which was formed following the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami.

Representing regional architects and resilient planning and design experts, the organisation promotes humanitarian and urban preservation strategies in response to natural disasters.

The finalists – set to be announced on 10 August – will be invited to share their proposals with a panel of stakeholders, city representatives, and design professionals.

How to apply


Submission deadline is 5 August, midnight (PST)

Contact details

Marcus Monroe
c/o Quinn Evans Architects
2121 Ward Pl, 4th Fl
Washington DC 20037


Visit the competition website for more information

BIG U case study: Q&A with Jeremy Siegel, BIG

The project leader at BIG discusses lessons learned designing a flood defence system in New York

How will your competition-winning BIG U project deliver new flood defences while creating an improved public realm?

The BIG U is a protective system around Manhattan from West 54th street south to The Battery and up to East 40th street: 10 continuous miles of low-lying geography that comprise an incredibly dense, vibrant, and vulnerable urban area. The BIG U consists of multiple but linked design opportunities; each on different scales of time, size and investment; each local neighbourhood tailoring its own set of programs, functions, and opportunities. Small, relatively simple projects maintain the resiliency investment momentum post-Sandy, while setting in motion the longer-term solutions that will be necessary in the future.

Big u by big (1)

BIG U flood defences by BIG

Which material, structural and design techniques are available to architects seeking to achieve a similarly impressive outcome?

Getting back to basics - structurally reinforced earth, topography, and greenery - can go a long way in integrating robust flood protection into urban environments - wherever possible, using landscape to do it’s natural job as a water’s edge, as well as leveraging existing infrastructure, urban elements, and high-points. In sensitive areas, emerging materials and techniques including fabric, inflatable, and hydraulically operated deployable elements can provide rapid deployment of protection elements where connections or views are key.

Big u by big (3)

BIG U flood defences by BIG

What considerations are important when designing flood defences in historic areas of major cultural and social significance such as the National Mall?

Many of the above techniques can be deployed in areas of major significance where there is a need to defer to existing views or conditions. At the same time, we also constantly ask ourselves how flood protection elements or landforms might actually complement or even enhance views, connectivity, or programming in a given part of the city - can we provide better connections to a waterfront park that is disconnected? Can we attract life and activity to areas that have been historically overlooked? Waterfront areas have always been dynamic and changing places, and we always try to keep in mind that adaptation to climate change is simply the next step in that transformation.

Big u by big (2)

BIG U flood defences by BIG