Tourism in Washington, D.C., all boils down to the three M’s: Memorials, monuments and museums.

As for that first one, the more than 150 commemorative landmarks found in and around the nation’s capital take on a myriad of shapes and sizes, although the most highly trafficked ones can be described as soaring, sprawling and perhaps a wee bit heavy on the white granite.

Many of these frequently land-intensive tributes, which include statuary of both the president who issued the Emancipation Proclamation and the gent who invented the screw propeller, are clustered on or around the recently face-lifted National Mall. Squeezing a sizable of chunk of Washington’s top attractions along a venerated 2-mile-long strip of turf is obviously convenient for sightseeing purposes. However, America’s Front Yard is at full capacity with zero room for major future additions. The Mall is done. Complete. Finito.

“We consider the Mall a finished work of civic art,” explained John V. Cogbill III, former chairman of the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), in 2004.

There are exemptions, however. What’s likely to be the last major addition to the Mall, the hugely anticipated National Museum of African American History and Culture, opens its doors to the public this week. Operated, much like its fellow Mall-flanking museums, by the Smithsonian Institution, the David Adjaye-designed museum was established in 2003 with site selection taking place in 2006.

With no significant square footage for memorial-erecting remains on or around the Mall proper, there are, however, numerous other sites a bit further afield ripe for future commemoration.

National Mall, aerial With Washington's main memorial venue, the National Mall, full for the unseen future, Memorials for the Future seeks proposals for non-traditional, off-Mall commemoration concepts. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Four of these potential sites — Hains Point in East Potomac Park; the Belvedere, a waterfront parcel in West Potomac Park; and two major traffic circles in residential neighborhoods, Tenley Circle in Northwest D.C. and Randle Circle in the city’s southeast quadrant — served as blank slates for Memorials for the Future, a design competition launched by the NCPC, the National Park Service and the Van Alen Institute in which participants were tasked with reimagining how memorials look — and are experienced — in the nation’s memorial-stuffed capital.

As an overview of the competition states: “Memorials for the Future calls for designers, artists and social scientists to develop new ways to commemorate people and events that are more inclusive and flexible, and enrich Washington’s landscape while responding to the limitation of traditional commemoration.”

In other words: no granite slabs, no columns and no sites spanning multiple acres — the anti-Lincoln Memorial, basically. Seeking ideas that best “push forward our collective notion of memorialization,” competition organizers, above all, sought out concepts that demonstrated a clean break from tradition:

As a national capital, Washington is a place of collective memory. The wealth of monuments sited throughout the city take on heightened significance as they reflect relationships among nations, of national remembrance, and of many important events and figures in our history. Often the traditional and fixed nature of memorial design does not allow for adaptation and redefinition over time and does not encourage more than one interpretation of a given narrative.

The traditional approach to developing memorials in Washington has resulted in a commemorative landscape that is thematically similar and increasingly land-intensive, which poses challenges for Washington, and has long-term implications for the potential uses of a memorial's surrounding park setting.

The planning and design process is often costly and lengthy, which limits opportunities to groups or individuals with significant resources. Current trends raise a number of questions about the future of Washington's memorial landscape and the ability to provide space and resources for future commemorative works.

The recently announced winner of the Memorials of the Future competition indeed offers a departure from the norm: a poetic concept, equally striking as it is somber, that serves as a “public record of rising sea levels.” Named Climate Chronograph, the winning proposal serves as both commentary and a tribute to what has been lost — places, people, memories — to a warming planet.

Climate Chronograph, the winning entrant in the Memorials for the Future design competition. Winning team Azimuth Land Craft call its memorial proposal 'an embrace of indeterminacy, nature will write out story, our choices, into the landscape as we face this most vulnerable moment of uncertainty.' (Rendering: Azimuth Land Craft)

Described in a press release as a “living observatory that allows people to interact with the space as it evolves unpredictably over time,” Climate Chronograph — submitted by Erik Jensen and Rebecca Sunter of Oakland California-based landscape architecture firm Azimuth Land Craft — would take shape at Hains Point, the southern apex of the peninsular artificial island-cum-recreation area otherwise known as East Potomac Park. Given that it’s built from reclaimed land dredged from the Potomac River in the late 19th century, flood-prone Hains Point, along with the rest of East Potomac Park, is slowly sinking.

The fact that Hains Point will eventually be consumed entirely by water is key to the design of Climate Chronograph. The memorial itself — a “memorial that sacrifices itself to what would be” — consists of a simple grove of cherry trees — already a postcard-perfect icon of the capital — sloping toward the waters' edge. As time progresses and sea levels rise, the beautiful grove will be slowly inundated, killing the trees row by row. For every foot of sea-level rise, four rows of trees would be claimed. And so, a memorial which started out boasting dozens of rows of healthy cherry trees will, by the end of the century, only sport a small handful.

Hains Point, East Potomac Park, Washington, D.C. A peninsular island extending from East Potomac Park, flood-prone Hains Point is located at the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers and has not been set aside for future memorial use. (Photo: Google Maps)

Elaborates Azimuth Land Craft:

Climate Chronograph is slow, offering us an opportunity to shift our current, accelerationist thinking into a longer multi-generational time frame. Locals may witness a gradual progression of rising seas, whereas out-of-town visitors may never experience the same memorial twice. Imagine a young American’s staple eighth-grade trip to Washington, D.C.: one row of inundated trees. During a college protest: three flooded rows. When she returns later in life with her children: seven rows of rampikes. Transformation of the memorial mirrors transformation in the world, and bears witness to the changes wrought on a landscape over time. When our children and our children’s children visit, it becomes a legible demonstration of generational-paced change.

Described by Azimuth Land Craft as an “embrace of indeterminacy,” Climate Chronograph is memorial-making at its moodiest, no doubt. Edward T. Linenthal, a professor of history at Indiana University, refers to it as “new form of memorialization that commemorates the aftermath of the present.”

Climate Chronograph, the winning entrant in the Memorials for the Future design competition. Centered around a sloping grove of cherry trees that will eventually perish as sea levels rise, Climate Chronicle is described as a 'living observatory for an indeterminate emergent process.' (Rendering: Azimuth Land Craft)

Drowned trees and somewhat grim vibes aside, the simple yet devastating concept resonated with competition jurors.

“The finalist concepts allow us to think outside the often-fixed nature of memorial design, looking beyond solemn marble statues of uniformed men on horseback, and envisioning emotionally resonant memorials open to varied interpretations,” remarks David van de Leer, juror and executive director of the Van Alen Institute, in a press statement.

Selected from 89 entries submitted by teams hailing from eight countries, Climate Chronograph will be on display in the Hall of Nations at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts through Oct. 20. Also on display will be the three competition runners-up: The IM(MIGRANT): Honoring the Journey (Honorable Mention for American Heritage and Community), American Wild: A Memorial (Honorable Mention for Marrying the Ephemeral and Iconic) and VOICEOVER (Honorable Mention for Futurism and Reinterpretation).

If you were to create a new, non-traditional memorial for Washington, D.C., what would it commemorate? And what would it look like?

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Washington, D.C.'s winning 'Memorial for the Future' is as sobering as it is beautiful
Climate Chronograph is a memorial that sinks as sea levels rise.