The point of an ideas competition is to explore all possibilities and spark discussion about use of a public space, outside the constraints of cost, existing features or previous plans.
The National Ideas Competition for the Washington Monument Grounds imposed no limitations other than an entrant’s imagination, provided the proposal met the competition’s objectives. It was launched in summer 2010 to seek ideas for making the Washington Monument grounds — the centerpiece of the National Mall and the “symbolic landscape in the civic life of our democracy” — more “welcoming, educational and effectively used by the public,” according to the website.
Nevertheless, Catherine Peek, a 2001 Sweet Briar graduate, wanted her concept to be “eminently doable,” she said. Nor did its feasibility prevent the panel of judges from naming her design, “Field of Stars,” one of six finalists out of more than 500 submitted from around the world.
Now the public can decide the contest’s two final winners by voting online at www.wamocompetition.org/vote. Artist’s renderings of Peek’s and five other finalists’ plans for the Monument grounds are shown on the website, along with recorded interviews with the designers. Public voting closes in May, and the winners will be announced on May 17.
Peek’s “Field of Stars” proposes a grid of people-powered “piezoelectric” landscaping lights placed across the open grounds. Kinetic energy from visitors walking on them produces and stores an electric charge.
“At dusk the illumination of each lamp is bright in proportion to the day’s foot traffic, symbolic of power that the people wield nationwide,” Peek wrote of her competition entry.
She also envisions each step triggering sound fragments that evoke “ghosts” of the past. For example, brief strains of “Taps” would be heard where soldiers once camped, or protesters’ voices would echo where historic marches took place.
In contrast to the other finalists’ — which include large-scale plantings, amphitheaters and a glass enclosure — Peek’s vision leaves the monument’s sweeping lawn relatively unchanged. As ideas, the others are all interesting but huge in scope, she said by telephone from her home in Pittsburgh.
To develop her submission, Peek went to Washington and simply observed how people interacted with the monument for two full days, from first light until after dark.
“I did not feel anything particularly lacking from the site,” she said.
She saw people having fun, enjoying the grassy expanse, from pre-dawn joggers and after-work kickball clubs to tourists photographing themselves pretending to support the huge obelisk. Peek thought about how the site has historically been used and how people remember their experiences there and she didn’t want to fundamentally change it.
“I like seeing the [National] Mall,” she said. “I was brainstorming how to affect the landscape without putting an object there.”
Peek says the lights would add a human scale to the immenseness of the monument and vast lawn and, together with the sound, let visitors both engage with the space and be mindful of others who share it with them. She hopes people will walk farther and stay later in anticipation of the lights at twilight.
“I wanted room for people who were nostalgic about visiting the Washington Monument,” Peek said in her recorded interview. “And then I wanted to bring out some of the power of the people who visited and love the site in a simple and elegant way.”
The “ephemeral theater of sound and light” created by each day’s visitors builds a sense of community and lets them demonstrate love of country through the brightness of the lights, she said.
“I think that when people visit the monument for any number of reasons, they not only want to interact and take pictures and have fun, but they also want their presence marked in some way. I think it would add a great deal of beauty and poetry to the site.”
Peek earned a Master of Architecture from Rice University after graduating from Sweet Briar with a bachelor’s in mathematical physics. She worked as an apprentice architect for five years before taking time to raise twins Roy and Bennie Williams III, now 18 months, with her husband. She is studying for the registered architect exams this spring and working toward establishing an urban design practice.
Winners of the Washington Monument ideas competition will be recognized at the American Institute of Architects National Convention in Washington, which coincides with the announcement on May 17.
That would be a feather in any young architect’s cap.
Contact: Jennifer McManamay