“The unbuilt is the fantasy that underlies everything,” remarks Rem Koolhaas, the world-renowned Dutch architect, on his own work in an article in Wired, a monthly American magazine. This remarkable architect co-founded the esteemed firm OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture) in Rotterdam and is known throughout the world for his design breakthroughs and radical way of thinking. The CCTV Headquarters in Beijing, Seattle Public Library in Seattle, and Casa da Música in Portugal are some of the famous buildings designed by the firm.
Ar. Rem Koolhaas and his co-founders at OMA stand as a representative of the western world of architecture which is ever constantly hustling to meet the needs of the 21st century Metropolitan. He believes that every project holds the capability to provide a new image to its city, thus, standing by the principles of building iconic structures.
One such successful attempt at rendering a new face to the city of Washington D.C, the US capital, was winning the competition for re-imagining the aging freeway structure – the 11th Street Bridge Park, over the Anacostia River, as an elevated park and new civic space. OMA in collaboration with the landscape firm OLIN unanimously won the project, in the year 2014, through their holistic design approach and proposal for a dynamic intersecting structure.
The Design Brief
The 11th Street Bridge Park Design Competition, sponsored by the Office of Planning – Building Bridges Across the River at THEARC, was a three-staged national design competition that began in the month of March’14. Architects and landscape architects from all over the world were invited to register as lead designers and submit a portfolio of their qualifications to get selected.
The selected firms were introduced to the design brief – a challenge to re-imagine an existing freeway bridge spanning the Anacostia River in Southeast D.C into an elevated park that unites the neighborhoods of Capitol Hill and Anacostia. The project was to be aimed at encouraging district residents to engage with the riverfront and designing spaces that cater to their health while providing the necessary environmental education opportunities. The project was estimated to cost $25 million to complete.
The Design Philosophy
As mentioned above, OMA is a design firm that represents and promotes the designing of iconic and monumental structures. This design platform too was taken up by the firm as an opportunity to create a new character for the city of Washington D.C. Thus, the design philosophy was to integrate structure and characterization into a form that facilitates the community and reinstates the cultural backdrop of the city. The way ahead was:
- To conceptualize a structure that stands out from its context, and,
- To re-imagine user interfaces, keeping the design philosophy in mind, over the river of Anacostia.
Conceiving the Concept
The 11th Street Bridge Park was conceptualized into a series of programs that offered various interfaces for the residents of the city to connect with the river below. An extensive conceptual program was developed which included aspects of Accessibility, Enough Vantage points, Public plazas, Performance platforms, A rational structure, A landscape that translates into the topography, and a platform for educational service.
The product was that of visualizing two paths – each emerging from either side of the river, which come together to culminate into a structure representative of two springboards that have been sloped into ramps terminating into vantage points. The structure looks like an ’X’ that subtly portrays yin & yang, one half forming a loop facing the left while the other half is a platform facing the right.
Further, this conceived structure is zoned into four categories that represent the functions of spaces:
- Relax – for getaway spaces
- Gather– for communal activities
- Learn– for educational purposes
- Play– for recreational needs
Preparing a Plan – The Design
The architects at OMA and landscape designers at OLIN together crafted a plan that incorporated the concept and zoning into a project proposal that did justice to the design brief of the competition. The 11th street bridge park design by OMA+OLIN was representative of a topographic landscape that caters to the present-day needs of the community.
The highlight of the project, and the element which makes it iconic, are the two paths that form the ‘X’. They culminate into a central meeting point on the bridge which acts as an open public plaza that can function as a market as well as a stage for festivals and theatrical performances. The voids below the elevated ramps house the educational facilities, an amphitheater for performances, and café facilities.
The two paths gradually elevate into ramps, with a 5% slope, that leads to viewing stations. These vantage points, with waterfalls at their ends, were designed to provide breath-taking views of the capital city as well as the humble river flowing below.
The Competition Entry
The architects envisioned this project as an iconic interface between the citizens and the river Anacostia. They aimed to achieve this interface with nature through sustainable interventions that do not hinder the ecology of the river or its context.
To achieve this several landscape elements have been put to use, in and around the bridge, to develop parks and open spaces, each of which provides a different ambiance with different recreational opportunities. The need for integrative open spaces in the metropolitan capital city of Washington DC has been duly acknowledged and catered through these green interventions.
The project is envisioned as a continuation of the river edges. The landscape emerges from the context and seems to grow from the river edges to the very top of the bridge. Alongside the landscape, the rational structure supporting the bridge also allows the waterfalls from the top of the bridge to reconnect to the river below, which is in turn connected to a filtration system that facilitates filtering of the waters of the Anacostia River.
The emphasis on vegetation and landscape goes hand in hand with the vision of the architects to encourage the citizens to connect to their surroundings. As an additional value, and for justifying the meeting of the design brief, an environmental education center is also incorporated into the design to provide a variety of learning opportunities for the visitors, in turn acting as a catalyst to enhance the awareness amongst the public about the environment they live in.
The success of this alternative, designed by OMA+OLIN, over the other proposals can be credited to the fact that this approach integrated architecture, landscape, and infrastructure into a new socially sustainable civic experience.
Moreover, the designers meticulously approached and conquered the Knick-Knacks of community spaces that aren’t just functional in theory but also successful in practice.
The most endearing part of the project is the design itself, which is a canvas of natural landscapes that change throughout the year, with the changing seasons. The architects were successful in artistically designing a new image for the river and the city itself through this holistic approach.
Standing true to the visions of Rem Koolhaas, OMA once again delivered a structure that symbolizes the 21st century in the most beautiful way possible.