Columbia Pike between South Joyce Street and South Washington Boulevard
Dear Col. Austin:
In its public meeting of 21 April conducted by videoconference, the Commission of Fine Arts was pleased to hear an information presentation on the proposed 9/11 Pentagon Memorial Visitor Education Center, to be located along a reconfigured segment of Columbia Pike at South Joyce Street in Arlington, Virginia, on a parcel within the jurisdiction of Arlington National Cemetery. The Commission appreciated the early opportunity to advise on the development of this prominent site and provided the following comments to assist in the development of the project’s design.
The Commission members observed that Arlington National Cemetery is one of the nation’s most significant and hallowed landscapes, and they were unanimous in raising serious concerns about the impact of the proposed visitor center on the cemetery’s character and dignity. They observed that the proposed building would be an expressive object calling attention to itself, which is not appropriate for its context and purpose; they advised that the facility should be a quiet, background building that honors and extends the design language of the cemetery. Citing the precedent images showing the cemetery’s beautiful architecture, both traditional and contemporary, they found that the proposed design does not convey the same sense of quality and permanence.
In their discussion, the Commission members identified several factors that are contributing to their concerns with the proposal. They commented that the architecture seems to be generated by site constraints, such as security setbacks and traffic management, rather than emerging from a conceptual idea. They observed that the linear path of Flight 77 is being used to organize the building, as it does the actual Pentagon Memorial; they found that this design strategy has resulted in a tall element intruding upon the flight path—which is central to the understanding and experience of the memorial—and is in conflict with the program’s inward focus of exhibit, auditorium, and educational spaces. They also identified an uneasy relationship between the building and the sacred landscape of the active cemetery, which would serve as the viewshed for the proposed building’s retail, food service, and event spaces. Instead, they recommended that the building be lowered, with significant portions below grade, reducing the project’s visual impact and better accommodating extensive program areas where daylighting is problematic; they suggested that skylights and sunken courts could be used to punctuate interior spaces.
For the design of the site, the Commission members commented that the planning is overly focused on private vehicles; they observed that many visitors will be schoolchildren arriving by bus, but the added program of a conference center exaggerates the necessity for an extensive parking lot, which may be vacant much of the time. In addition, they raised concern regarding the comfort of the outdoor pedestrian experience, recommending more shade and spatial definition with trees in areas of pedestrian arrival and passage through the site. Noting the thirty-foot drop of topography across the site, they suggested using this to inform the landscape design consistent with the fluid spirit of the adjacent cemetery, facilitating barrier-free access and lowering the building to reduce its presence in the landscape.
The Commission looks forward to further consultation on this project to provide interpretation for the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial within the extraordinary symbolic context of Arlington National Cemetery. Please continue to coordinate with the staff in the preparation of future submissions and throughout the planning and design process.
/s/Thomas E. Luebke, FAIA
Col. Thomas E. Austin, Director of Engineering
Arlington National Cemetery
Arlington, VA 22211
cc: Brian Chaffee, Fentress Architects
Chris Sutterfield, Confluence
Jim Laychak, Pentagon Memorial Fund