Twelve fascinating new designs for selected portions of the National Mall in Washington, D.C. were unveiled this week. The Trust for the National Mall and the National Park Service are sponsoring a design competition for three key sites: Union Square, at the foot of the Capitol building (where the Grant Memorial is located); the Washington Monument grounds, particularly its southern edge (where the now defunct Sylvan Theater is located); and Constitution Gardens (where the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is located). Four major design firms were invited to submit plans for each site, with a demanding technical program that emphasized sustainability, access, historical sensitivity, user-friendly amenities, and flexible spaces that can be utilized for democratic assembly and protest as well as cultural events and performances.

There is much to admire in virtually all of these proposals.  If any of them were implemented, they would go a long way toward restoring the biodiversity and human scale that once existed here before their eradication by the massive clearing operation, otherwise known as the “rape of the Mall,” that took place in the first several decades of the twentieth century.  But given the many competing demands of the program as well as the complexity of the sites themselves, it is hardly surprising that the designs disappoint as well.

First the winners, in my estimation:

•Andropogon’s entry for Constitution Gardens is phenomenally well thought out and presented.  It manages to reconnect the whole area to Constitution Avenue on the north and the Mall to the south, establish green infrastructure that creatively recalls the hydrological history on the site of Tiber Creek and the C&O canal, create new uses such as outdoor play spaces and indoor markets in zero-energy structures, all the while transforming a stagnant lake into a beautiful, ecologically diverse wetland park.

•Balmori’s entry for a “Sylvan Bowl” on the Washington Monument grounds is also very innovative,interweaving parkland and architecture like a mobius strip.  Its proposal for a spiralling, figure-8 shaped restaurant with green roof is the show-stopper of the design competition.  A grove of trees literally grows through the building, while the roof is designed to support a vegetable garden that supplies produce to the kitchen below.

•Two designs stand out for Union Square, in many ways the most intractable site in the competition.  With its disastrous reflecting pool (built in the 1970s) and huge shadeless expanse, this site fairly well sums up the worst problems of the whole Mall. Pei Cobb Fried’s solution is notable for its simplicity, elegantly connecting the formal landscape of the 20th-century Mall to the picturesque 19th-century landscape of the Capitol grounds by shrinking the pool into an oval and cutting two diagonal walkways through it, while also adding a spectacular arching fountain around the pool and gardens on the site’s perimeter.  Diller Scofidio & Renfro + Hood propose a more varied, complex program with a green infrastructure component and an audio system that transforms speech from the Congress and from visitors to the site into wave patterns on the reflecting pool; their theme is “multiple voices.”  Both designs have mechanisms to empty the reflecting pool to allow crowds to congregate there for special events.

So why the disappointment?

In a word, it’s about content.  None of the designs reexamines in a serious way our relationship to the monuments in these spaces, or, more broadly, to the democracy the Mall is supposed to represent.  The competition program did not exactly encourage this kind of work.  Its demand for “sensitivity to historical context” is more about highlighting the monuments already there, rather than than reinterpreting them, much less proposing new forms of public memory.  In Constitution Gardens for example, the program specifically asks the designers to “highlight and maintain” the memorial to the Signers of the Declaration of Independence.  But why do we even need a monument to the signers of the declaration, with a huge block for each name, when it is the words that have been so important and so bitterly contested in U.S. history? Why not try to reinvigorate this monument by creating a way to engage with the document’s meaning, the foundation of our democracy?

But I think the problem is deeper than the program. Last year I helped jury an ideas competition for the Washington Monument grounds which challenged entrants to confront its history and legacy.  The results in that respect were just as disappointing.

Diller Scofidio Renfro + Hood is the one firm in the competition that did try to engage democracy in a serious way.  Its proposal to convert political speech into “speaking waves” in the water on Union Square is a clever take on the idea of “making waves,” suggesting the unruly, roisterous debate that is the heart of any real democracy.  But in the end it is just a clever visualization, no substitute for the real thing.  It is discourse without content, which we already have in abundance on radio, TV, and the internet.  We have more media than ever but precious little content, less real debate, and even less listening.

Is it really asking too much to demand that our nation’s “democratic stage” (as the competition program calls it) actually function as such?  I keep wondering what an artist like Krzysztof Wodiczko would do here. He has dedicated his career to giving voice to the voiceless, to “making waves” in public space.  Whatever he attempted, real words would be spoken and people would listen.  It wouldn’t be easy though.