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War Education Center Planned for the Mall

Rendering of proposed Education Center that will be sunk entirely underground
Situated close to both the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial, the proposed Education Center at the Wall is a two-story building that will be sunk entirely underground, minimizing its impact on the National Mall. © Ennead Architects

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., has broken ground on a mostly subterranean education center that will explain and honor the sacrifices of all U.S. soldiers.

January 8, 2013—Since its opening in 1982, the somber Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., has memorialized the soldiers who died during the Vietnam War on a stark, powerful wall that redefined what memorials could be. Designed by Maya Lin, the wall cuts a dark gash into the neoclassical grounds of the National Mall, displaying the names of more than 58,000.

But times change, and by the late 1990s, the founder of the memorial, Jan Scruggs, himself a Vietnam infantry corporal, recognized a growing educational disconnect. As the Vietnam War receded into history, some 40 percent of the wall’s 4 million annual visitors in the 1990s had not been born at the time the wall opened.

In 2003 Congress passed legislation authorizing the construction of an education center near the wall. In order for the nonprofit Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund to be allowed to place a new facility between the wall and the Lincoln Memorial, there were many stipulations. Chiefly, to minimize its impact and protect view corridors, the two-story building would have to be sunk entirely underground. 

Interior rendering of the education center, featuring large glass-walled cases displaying artifacts

The education center will feature large glass-walled cases
displaying artifacts that have been left at the Vietnam Veterans
Memorial over the years. The steel-framed cases also support the
long walkway that descends through the center. Rendering by
Ralph Applebaum Associates

The two-story, 35,000 sq ft building, formally known as the Education Center at the Wall, will exhibit portions of the more than 300,000 items that have been left at the wall over the years. These artifacts include wedding bands, Purple Hearts, photos, letters, packs of cigarettes, beer, even a helicopter rotor blade. “It just really runs the gamut,” says Lee A. Allen, the director of communications for the VVMF. “All of them are collected daily and stored by the National Park Service.” The artifacts, he adds, will “tell the story of the war, those who fought the war, those who waited.” The center will also feature a large video wall that will project photos and biographical information of fallen soldiers, pegged to their birthdays.

The building is designed by New York City-based Ennead Architects (formerly Polshek Partnership). Ennead principal Thomas Wong, AIA, says the location was not a place for flexing a lot of design muscle. “Not unlike the memorial itself, we tried to make it as simple and calm as possible,” he says. “The goal was to enhance the experience of the wall, not to duplicate it or replace it.”

The design was more open to the sky in earlier conceptions—there were small triangular skylights punctuating the ceiling—but a desire to make the building as invisible as possible led to their removal, leaving a modest one-story glass entrance to the west as the building’s primary visual marker.

Interior rendering of the center, featuring a 5 in. thick waffle slab ceiling with a complex pattern of triangular cells

The center features a 5 in. thick waffle slab ceiling that is formed
with a complex pattern of 3 by 3 ft triangular cells.
© Ennead Architects

The interior of the building was conceived, Wong says, as a unified piece of architecture and exhibitory—in fact Ennead and exhibit designer Ralph Applebaum and Associates, also of New York City, presented their bids together. “It’s not like you have a building with a bunch of stuff in it,” Wong says. “The building is the stuff.”

Inside, the primary architectural element is a waffle slab that forms the roof. “It’s sort of this curving, sloping element that will give you a sense [that] you’re under a dome,” says Justin Den Herder, a senior engineer with Robert Silman Associates, the structural engineers on the project. RSA has offices in New York, Washington, D.C., and Boston. “That waffle slab is essentially the ground,” Wong adds, “as if the ground is pillowed up gently and you slide underneath it.”  

Rather than a more traditional rectangular waffle slab, the 5 in. thick slab will be formed with a complex pattern of 3 by 3 ft triangular cells that will extend across the entire slab. This geometry in turn will be crossed by a pattern of 18 in. thick radial ribs that are positioned along an axis with the Lincoln Memorial. The giant glass display cases housing the artifacts are as long as 100 ft and will be oriented along the same radiating axis lines.

Inside the center, a central concrete ramp—between 18 and 21 ft—will gradually descend from the ground level to the lower level, allowing visitors to interact with the exhibits, reminiscent of the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Additionally, the steel-framed glass cases not only house the center’s collection, they also support the descending concrete ramp—so it’s as if visitors will truly be immersed or suspended among the artifacts. The steel frame will even support a cantilevered section of the walkway that’s more than 60 ft long and 14 ft wide.

Rendering of museum's main entry plaza

The museum’s main entry plaza allows visitors to look down into
a courtyard and see both stories of the submerged building.
© Ennead Architects

At the lower level, the ramp leads to a contemplative open-air courtyard. The courtyard is meant to evoke Ennead’s goal for the whole building, which is to create, Wong says, an “uplifting, calming, almost a spiritual experience for what’s bound to be an emotional tour through a lot of these artifacts.”  

Seen at grade, the courtyard’s opening is meant to subtly emerge from the landscape—the railings at its edges are camouflaged by natural features, and you might not even know you’re on top of a structure until you get there. The courtyards also allow fresh air and light deep inside the building, while providing space for vents and exhaust.

Building underground will create some challenges. Foremost is the site’s high water table—the ground water elevation is about 3 ft below existing grade—no surprise given this end of the mall was once part of the Potomac in the 19th century. Because hydrostatic pressure will place uplift force on the building, the center will be weighted down with a thick, 24 in. pressure-mat slab that reaches 14 ft below grade. Micropiles will extend down to between 48 and 50 ft to drill into bedrock. Den Herder says they must be positioned so that they don’t disrupt geothermal wells already on-site.

The new building will be constructed with a slurry wall made of a waterproof bentonite mix, which will coat the outside of the concrete walls of the structure. The weight of the equipment used to excavate the site should somewhat compress the soil between the slab and bedrock, offering more stability.

Rendering of a video screen honoring fallen soldiers on their birthdays

A centerpiece of the education center is a video screen honoring
fallen soldiers on their birthdays; the center will also honor soldiers
from the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rendering by
Ralph Applebaum Associates

The education center hosted a ceremonial ground breaking late last month. But by law, construction cannot commence on the Mall until the foundation raises 100 percent of its $85-million cost—so far $47 million has been raised. Allen didn’t want to make a prediction on when the remainder of the funds will come in, but the foundation is hoping the publicity surrounding the ground breaking will lead to an uptick in donations. The foundation is seeking donations are from individuals, corporations, foundations—even foreign countries. They would also welcome federal dollars.

Allen recognizes how difficult it is to raise funds in the midst of a recovering economy, and with a focus on a war that is more than 40 years old—and is already commemorated by an iconic structure. To keep the museum contemporary, the museum will honor military personnel in the post 9/11 era as well, “celebrating service and valor and courage and commitment that’s been displayed by America’s military since the very beginning.”

The museum is working on an idea to offer dog tags from fallen soldiers to museum visitors who promise to volunteer or perform another service that honors the name on the tag. “Acts of kindness and service will be collected and associated with that name,” he says, “so the legacy of service will continue on and on.”

Allen is confident that when the education center is finally completed, “it will become a destination of its own. By honoring those values of the American military, we hope that veterans of all generations will be welcomed, and students will learn these values.”



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