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Landscape architects' group offers a new view of the nation's capital

Courtesy OLIN

The design of the Moongate Garden in Washington, D.C. was inspired by the Temple of Heaven, a 15th century religious complex in Beijing. A pool of water with four paths and a circular form at its center allow the public to walk into the middle of this water element. By using a dark color for the base of the pool, the water reflects the sky above.

Every year, millions of visitors to the nation’s capital gaze up at memorials to presidents, veterans and civic leaders. Each monument seems to stand alone, an idea cast in granite or marble and somehow separate from the world around it.

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) would beg to differ. Dedicated to the premise that the surrounding landscapes also warrant the attention and appreciation of visitors, the organization has just released its inaugural Landscape Architect’s Guide to Washington, D.C.

“These are the kinds of spaces that everybody goes through but are easily overlooked,” said Nancy Somerville, ASLA executive vice president and CEO. “These landscapes are almost more ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’ than a lot of the buildings and monuments around them.”

To spread that message, ASLA set out to catalog more than 70 sites throughout the city and its suburbs. To accomplish the task, they enlisted 20 professional landscape architects to photograph the sites, describe various design elements and offer insights as to why the original creators choose the layouts, materials and views that they did.

Some of the sites are well-known but described through a more landscape-oriented lens. At the Korean War Memorial, for example, visitors may not realize that the “soldiers” march through shrubs and slabs of granite designed to recall the rugged terrain that defined the conflict.

Other sites are less well known but well worth a visit. One of Somerville’s favorites is the Memorial to the 56 Signers of the Declaration of Independence, an unassuming array of granite blocks on a tiny island in Constitution Gardens on the National Mall.

The gardens, says Somerville, were intentionally designed with lots of curves to create a visual contrast with the rectilinear layout of the Mall and to serve as a buffer for the few visitors who find their way over the footbridge to Signers Island.

“It’s often overlooked so it’s a lot quieter than sites that are just yards away,” she told NBC News. “It’s a great place to enjoy your lunch or just take in the view.”

In a way, it’s only fitting that ASLA’s inaugural guide focuses on Washington, D.C. (and not only because that’s where the organization is headquartered). After all, the city is among the nation’s most planned urban areas and has been ever since Pierre L’Enfant came up with his initial design in 1791.

“Washington, D.C. is spatially different than many cities and it’s because of landscape design,” said Alexander Felson, an assistant professor in the School of Architecture at Yale University. “A landscape-oriented evaluation of the urban environment is a great way to experience it.”

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It may also provide an alternative to the traditional approach, which, as anyone who has traversed the National Mall can attest, can easily devolve into a forced march from monument to monument.

“The monuments are essentially these architectural artifacts, but they’re actually situated within a much broader landscape,” said Felson. Expanding on the concept, he suggests that that landscape extends to the city at large and incorporates suburban parks, reclaimed industrial sites and other destinations where good design can enhance the visitor experience.

“I love to explore and discover and experience the landscape of a city as much as I can,” he said. “Hopefully, the guide will allow others who may not have that tendency to experience [Washington] in the same way.”

In the meantime, the Landscape Architect’s Guide to Washington, D.C., is available on the ASLA website and via an abridged mobile site. The organization hopes to produce similar guides for other cities, with Boston expected to be the next destination.

Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him on Twitter.

Karen Bleier / AFP - Getty Images

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