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Friendship designer has bright idea for Washington Monument lawn

| Thursday, March 3, 2011

When Catherine Peek was growing up in Winchester, Va., she frequently took school field trips to Washington to visit national monuments and landmarks.

Now, she might be involved in a possible redesign of one of the country's most cherished sites.

Peek, 32, a freelance urban designer from Friendship, is a semifinalist in the National Ideas Competition for the Washington Monument Grounds. Sponsored by an independent group of historians, designers and other interested parties, in partnership with George Washington University, the contest solicited ideas to improve the 60 acres surrounding the monument.

Peek's entry, one of 24 selected by a jury, incorporates a grid of lights powered by kinetic energy on the lawn leading up to the monument. It was inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.'s march on Washington in 1963, but her rendition is reminiscent of a Vincent Van Gogh painting.

"I found a picture of the march and saw the distribution of people across the monument grounds," Peek says. "I wanted people to see that randomized distribution."

After a few redesigns, Peek settled on a system that allows a changing pattern to emerge depending on the foot traffic on the grounds. The technology of piezoelectricity enables sensors to convert mechanical energy to electricity. The pedestrian traffic on any given day will generate energy for the lights and determine the intensity of the lighting as darkness falls.

"During the daytime, (the lights) don't reflect," Peek says. "I did that intentionally so that people who are nostalgic, like myself, can see things the way they were when they saw them 10, 15 years ago. They can go back to the grounds, revisit them, and feel like they are going back home, to a place they recognize."

The competition acknowledges the work of Pierre L'Enfant, who designed Washington at the behest of George Washington, but aims to update the esplanade around the monument for the 21st century.

"In the view of many of our steering committee, the Washington Monument Grounds is perhaps the largest part of the mall that is unfinished according to these (L'Enfant,'s) plans," says Ellen Goldstein, executive director for the competition.

The competition is independent of any government organization. The U.S. National Parks Service has jurisdiction over the grounds. There's no guarantee the winner's design will be implemented.

The winning design will be selected by a public vote later this year after the jury chooses five finalists. Goldstein says there will be a small prize awarded to the winner.

"I think it's fair to say no one entered this for the money," Goldstein says. "It's the prestige that drives the competition, having your entry selected by a jury."

Peek's hope is that her design might one day be used to improve the area around the Washington Monument.

"I'm an urban planner at heart," Peek says, "and I'm really hoping that planners can use the pictures over time to try and discover the highest traffic areas and to plan, for example, where to locate public amenities, like water fountains and kiosks -- just to learn more about this site that looks like a blank slate. If it were able to do that, that would make me the happiest."

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