WWII Memorial: Sound the Retreat
What’s shocking about the escalating debate over the World War II Memorial proposed for the National Mall in Washington isn’t its intensity, but that it is raging at all.
Designed by Rhode Island architect Friedrich St. Florian, the monument will stand on a prominent section of the 2-mile-long lawn that stretches to the Capitol building, between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. A vast, sunken plaza surrounded by 56 stone pillars, it will replace the Mall’s Rainbow Pool at the eastern end of the Reflecting Pool, where enraptured crowds heard the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have a Dream Speech” in 1963.
That any monument could work in such a loaded context is doubtful. But it is hard to imagine one more insensitive to the spirit of the site. Pompous and unimaginative, St. Florian’s ring of towering archways and repetitive stone pillars smacks of the worst kind of authoritarian architecture. To build it would not only desecrate one of the world’s great democratic forums. It would do an injustice to the memory of those it is meant to celebrate.
In a sane world, such a proposal would have quickly withered away under public scrutiny. After all, many Americans regard the National Mall as hallowed ground. Since 1923, when the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial were completed, no new monument has been built along its central axis.
The selection of the Mall site was first suggested by Commission of Fine Arts Chairman J. Carter Brown at a meeting in 1995. (Brown overturned an earlier plan to build the monument in the nearby Constitution Gardens after the garden’s architect, David Childs, complained that it would conflict with the “pastoral” quality of his own design--sadly reinforcing the cliche that all architects have oversized egos.) That plan has since slipped through a series of government reviews largely unopposed. And when the National Capital Planning Commission meets on Thursday to review the design, it will mark the last real hurdle to the plan’s approval.
The degree of this disaster cannot be overstated. St. Florian’s design calls for tearing out the original Rainbow Pool, replacing it with a scaled-down version and sinking it six feet into the ground. A four-story triumphal arch and a semicircle of 28 17-foot-tall pillars frame the pool at each end. Along the side facing the reflecting pool, a curved granite wall--embedded with gold stars representing the death notices sent to mothers of slain soldiers--is flanked by long, stepped fountains on either side.
In locating the pool below ground level and splitting the ring of columns in two, St. Florian’s intent was to leave the long vista from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial unobstructed. In fact, the pillars turn what was once a free, open vista into one that is rigidly controlled. Seen from the Washington Monument, the celebrated view of Abraham Lincoln--seated with weary dignity in his chair--will be framed by the broken ring of pillars on either side. A sculpture--yet to be designed--will rise from the center of the pool on axis with the memorial, while the curved wall and fountains become a physical barrier, blocking the free flow of pedestrians across the lawn.
But it is the values that the Mall embodies that really get demolished. The Mall is not just a luxurious strip of grass. It is the physical expression of our best democratic ideals. In Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s 18th century plan for the nation’s capital--later refined in the 1902 McMillan plan--the long, soft carpet of grass that extends between the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol building was conceived as the people’s axis. (It is no coincidence that the White House, set perpendicular to this space, gets secondary status.) As a living tapestry of protesters, schoolchildren and picnicking families, the lawn has since become an emblem of the glorious turmoil of the democratic process.
This is a point St. Florian clearly missed. Instead, the stripped-down neoclassicism and strict axial geometry of his design unwittingly recall the architecture of 1930s-era fascism. The four-story triumphal arches lack human scale. The pillars--much like their fascist precedents--are polished and unadorned. Their repetitive precision stresses the value of military conformity over independence of spirit. Together, these forms suggest the insignificance of human life rather than the dignity of human sacrifice.
There are countless precedents for this kind of architecture. Werner March’s 1934 Olympic Stadium--where Jesse Owens ran to victory under the gaze of a humiliated Adolf Hitler--reflects the same abstracted sense of rational order. Albert Speer, Hitler’s chief architect, would have felt at home with the language of the monument’s imposing arches, with their gaudy brass wreaths and menacing eagles. What unites such works is not a heroic sensibility, but the desire to instill a sense of awe. It is the architecture of authoritarian power.
Compare this monument with Maya Lin’s haunting Vietnam Memorial. The power of that memorial--with its long wall of polished black granite, engraved with the names of the more than 58,000 dead, and discreetly sunken below ground--stems from the fact that it is politically neutral. As your eye slides across its surface, it is your own values that are reflected back at you. Those values are presented against the inescapable background of the names, a reminder that any system of beliefs ultimately must be measured against those who are sacrificed to its cause.
Few, of course, see World War II as a morally ambiguous event. It was fought at a time when most Americans still shared an unwavering confidence in their democratic values. Many of those who fought that war are already dead, and that gives the desire to preserve their memory an additional sense of urgency.
But to do so at such a cost is wrong. And it runs contrary to one of the key moral lessons left us by that generation. In 1945, with the war over, these men and women were expected to return to the monotony of their daily lives without flaunting their sacrifices. They did so willingly. By contrast, we now live in an age when every good deed--especially those that require no sacrifice at all--becomes a self-promotional tool. It is a sad irony that this monument speaks more eloquently about that kind of narcissism than about a depth of sacrifice our culture no longer seems to understand.