Sylvan Theater Wins 2015 Progressive Architecture Award

February 1, 2015
The new Sylvan Theater at the Washington Monument will come as a great relief to visitors to our nation's capital. No spot in D.C. is so central, yet so maddeningly in the middle of nowhere, as the wide grassy rise that leads to the famous obelisk. Working with the Philadelphia office of landscape architecture firm Olin, New York–based Weiss/Manfredi finally introduces a few amenities to this breathtaking but isolated patch, and all without disturbing the historic sightlines down and around the National Mall.

On the south side of the monument, as the hill slopes down, a sinuous two-pronged pavilion slowly peels away from the ground to open up a light-filled interior, with a program that includes a café, bookstore, bathrooms, and more. Making maximum use of the site, the designers have perched auditorium-style lawn seating for 1,100 in terraced rows atop semi-buried lobes of this pavilion. These rows of seats are in addition to a much larger south-facing amphitheater embedded in the adjacent hill, which can accommodate an audience as large as 10,000.

The plan also looks to the broader landscape and urban context in an effort to further integrate the new feature into its surroundings, creating a double-length allée of trees that extends the regular plantings of the eastern National Mall while providing some desperately needed shade on the otherwise starkly open site.

And there's an especially poignant significance to putting an amphitheater next to a monument like Washington's: Obelisks entered the language of Western architecture when the Romans absconded with one from Egypt as a trophy for their imperial Circus Maximus, site of bloody chariot races and gladiatorial games. Here, rather than making the obelisk a spectacle of conquest, the designers frame it as part of a truly democratic vista.

Architect Magazine
By Ian Volner