A memorial to forget

Times Staff Writer

Memorial designs rarely say as much about the past as they do about the present. Fifty-nine years after Hitler was crushed and Tojo’s minions were defeated, the new World War II Memorial being dedicated this week on the National Mall tells us not who we were in 1945 but who we have become today. Built at a staggering cost of $174 million, overbearing in style and garish in design, the memorial celebrates the Grandiose Generation: ours.

For nearly half a century, the story of America’s victory in World War II was the story of the citizen-soldier. The pharmacist from a small town in Oklahoma transformed into an able paratrooper. The librarian from New Orleans skillfully leading troops into battle. The school nurse from Buffalo who rescued fallen comrades behind enemy lines.

Legions of housewives at home metamorphosed into Rosie the Riveter, their backyards blossoming as victory gardens and their long days marked by sacrifice and heartache. As befits a democratic republic whose military serves at the pleasure of civilian government, these citizen-soldiers stopped the fascist juggernaut in its tracks.

On Saturday this potent American story will undergo a stark mutation. Official Washington will gather to dedicate the National World War II Memorial, an extravagant narrative in granite and bronze that buries the citizen-soldier beneath a vainglorious display of funereal motifs. Long overdue as a grateful commemoration of exceptional events, it instead celebrates the rise of an American imperium.


Pomposity, arrogance and mediocrity are not terms that have ever been associated with the common men and women whose uncommon valor abroad and at home made America the envy of the world, in the wake of global war. But they are very much the terms with which this awful memorial remembers their intrepid deeds. And in one critical commemorative detail, which we’ll get to in a moment, it even leaves a viewer slack-jawed.

Adding insult to injury, this new story interrupts and permanently scars the most powerful symbolic narrative in the history of American art. The memorial unfolds in a 7.4-acre plaza ungracefully wedged into the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial, at the east end of the Reflecting Pool directly across 17th Street from the Washington Monument. Its placement does irreparable damage to the eloquent design of the National Mall, whose great cross-axes articulate the founding principles of American democracy.

The memorial was principally designed by former dean of the Rhode Island School of Design, Friedrich St. Florian. The American Battle Monuments Commission, a federal agency also responsible for the surpassingly ugly Korean War Veterans Memorial south of the Reflecting Pool, is the sponsor. (These fiascoes should be remembered the next time the commission comes knocking with a memorial plan.) Astoundingly, given the new memorial’s central prominence in the mall’s celebratory two-mile sweep, its design elements are based on cemetery motifs.

Fifty-six stone grave markers ring the oval site, one for every state and territory in the period, plus the District of Columbia. Their form derives from an ancient Greek type called a stele. Each speckled gray slab is 17 feet tall and draped, front and back, with cast-bronze funeral wreaths. Patterns of wheat sheaves and oak leaves alternate in the 112 wreaths.


A stele is usually a solid stone slab, but tall vertical slots are cut in the center of these. The slab is rectilinear, the sides of the interior opening curved -- a plinth awkwardly married with columns. These vertical slots mean to create transparency, in an effort not to block the great open vista between the nearby monuments to Washington and Lincoln. Mostly they just make the grave markers look spindly while visually doubling their already ungainly number.

Cut into the granite balustrade that connects the 56 funeral markers, open horizontal slots are adorned with massive swags of bronze rope. They mean to create an illusion of tying the slab-columns together. The motif, a clumsy symbol for national unity during the war, actually weakens the essential sense of monumentality.

Too much going on

Clutter is among the memorial’s biggest problems. A lot is going on here, but the bustle never reaches climax or arrives at a focal point. A visitor is left to wander, reading a dozen wartime homilies -- “a date which will live in infamy,” “they had no right to win, but they did,” “the eyes of the world are upon you” -- chiseled in the stone.


The plaza was constructed around the Lincoln Memorial’s former Rainbow Pool, which was demolished and rebuilt at a smaller scale. The baroque pool now sports a ring of 100 water jets, punctuated at each end by a splashing geyser. Joined by four more nearby sets of cascading waterfalls, the visual clutter is matched by roaring noise. Contemplative it’s not.

The pool’s centerpiece -- and thus the entire memorial’s focus -- was supposed to have been a sculpture called “The Light of Freedom.” During planning, the monuments commission airily described the sculpture, for which an artist wasn’t yet chosen, as a defining symbol for “the triumph of freedom over totalitarianism and democracy over tyranny.” Stirring words. Empty too since somewhere along the way the symbolic centerpiece got scrapped.

Originally the memorial was to be sited about 150 yards northwest of the Rainbow Pool, in a sylvan setting in Constitution Gardens more conducive to a funerary monument’s contemplative demands. The site roughly coincided with now-demolished buildings that had been the nerve center of the war effort. When the memorial was moved to the center of the mall’s main axis at the behest of the late J. Carter Brown, powerful longtime chairman of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, a fatal design problem arose: St. Florian was faced with the impossible contradiction of making a memorial both monumental and transparent.

A suitable sculptural crescendo to represent “The Light of Freedom” could not be small. So it was dropped, to not block the open vista.


At the north and south end of the plaza, skinny pavilions, each taller than a four-story building and pierced on four sides by archways, represent the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of war. (The distance between them is slightly greater than the length of a football field.) Inside each, four eagles atop four columns hold laurel victory wreaths suspended from ribbons in their beaks. Though tucked away, the dramatic bronze sculptures provide the memorial’s only formal grace note.

At the 17th Street entrance two paths slope down into the sunken plaza, 6 feet below grade. Walls lining the path will eventually feature 24 bronze panels in low relief by Raymond Kaskey, a Maryland sculptor perhaps best known for the copper colossus, “Portlandia,” on Michael Graves’ Postmodern municipal building in Portland, Ore. (Kaskey fashioned all the memorial’s sculptural elements.) The reliefs, reportedly based on period photographs depicting scenes of war and the home front, are where the memorial nods to the citizen-soldier. Only eight are completed, none compellingly.

The worst is a lumpish view of soldiers on an aircraft carrier. Two crouch beneath an airplane wing, whose configuration wrinkles your brow. I’m no aircraft expert, but it’s hard to say whether this is just maladroit foreshortening or a picture of an F4U Corsair, known as the “Bent-Wing Bird” and famously flown by Maj. Gregory “Pappy” Boyington.

The rear of the plaza is dubbed the Freedom Wall. This is where a visitor’s slack-jaw moment comes. What should be the most poignant feature of the entire space instead epitomizes its coarse inadequacy.


The curved wall is lined with 23 bronze panels. Each features 11 rows of 16 handmade gold stars, meant to recall those that “gold-star mothers” put in their windows when a family member was killed.

So many are missing

Why are there 4,048 stars on the wall? The designer says each star represents about 100 soldiers killed in the war. But the arbitrariness of this assignment of multiplication renders it meaningless. Worse, it vitiates the memorial’s most profound purpose.

A grim total of 405,973 members of the U.S. Armed Forces died in World War II. You do the math. More than a thousand have gone missing from the Freedom Wall. For so grave a fact in so momentous a setting, “close enough” isn’t good enough. Imagine if a couple of dozen names had been left off the Vietnam Veterans Memorial for the sake of symmetrical design economy.


Chiseled into granite across the front of the gaudy wall is the legend “Here we mark the price of freedom.” If the wall were artistically effective, no descriptive platitude would be needed. Arbitrariness and crude generality defeat the acute specificity that great art demands.

A similar sloppiness surrounds the fateful decision to place the war memorial on the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial -- in defiance of established law. The Commemorative Works Act of 1986, signed by President Reagan to stop the proliferation of monuments now despoiling the National Mall, forbids new memorials from encroaching upon existing ones. Regardless, the relocation of the World War II Memorial from its original Constitution Gardens site was engineered four years ago through a smarmy backroom deal struck by a cohort of Washington insiders. In addition to Brown, they prominently included corporate architect David Childs, the consulting partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill now guiding the Sept. 11 memorial development in New York; he has since succeeded Brown as chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts.

The mall, initiated in 1791, is in fact a 20th century work of art, developed in its recognizable form today by the 1902 McMillan Commission. Architects Daniel Burnham and Charles McKim, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens together created America’s greatest design masterpiece.

Think of Andre Le Notre’s sumptuous gardens at Versailles, wrestled from the absolute power of the Sun King and turned over to the democratic pleasure of citizens. Its hallmark -- modern, but not Modernist -- is simplicity. In clear-cut gestures the mall symbolically maps the nation’s founding principles.


A long east-west axis is crossed by a shorter north-south axis, echoing the American continent. Where they intersect the Washington Monument rises into the sky, the great spindle around which the garden turns.

At the eastern end is the Capitol, center of the city, where the people’s business is conducted. To the north is the White House, residence of the people’s elected leader. Opposite on the southern end is the Jefferson Memorial, shrine to the Declaration of Independence. To the west, the Lincoln Memorial celebrates the union of the states. Between them all is space -- empty space, poetic evocation of the New World and actual promenade for civilian gathering.

The Neo-Classical styles chosen for the mall’s three major monuments also speak of origins. Washington’s Egyptian obelisk recalls a cradle of Western civilization. Lincoln’s Greek temple nods to the first democratic government. Jefferson’s Roman temple acknowledges the first republic. As temples, not tombs, they exalt their themes.

None of the five structures that anchor the mall records a topical event. George Washington led the revolutionary army, but the Washington Monument is not a war memorial. Nor is that of his fellow revolutionary, Jefferson; nor the Lincoln Memorial, despite that president’s heroic tenure during the Civil War. Instead, great citizens who embody founding principles of democratic and republican virtue are remembered -- the general who refused to be king, the gentleman-farmer who penned the document of freedom, the log cabin rail-splitter who enacted it.


The World War II Memorial scars that symbolic panorama, introducing the dissonance of a world-shaping event into a pastoral landscape of first principles. So conceptually out of place is it that sponsors have even had to misrepresent the mall’s authentic grandeur to stuff the memorial in. Its ceremonial entrance features an “announcement stone” whose granite legend trivializes the conceptual gravity of the mall. It says:

“Here in the presence of Washington and Lincoln, one the 18th century father and the other the 19th century preserver of our nation, we honor those 20th century Americans who took up the struggle during the Second World War ...”

Were the announcement stone correct, you would be entering the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial. The Mall’s brilliant artistry is reduced to a simple-minded timeline.

The cluttered, overwrought design of the new memorial is not Neo-Classical, representing stoic simplicity and urgent, idealized seriousness. Instead, its decorative excess and strained embellishments recall the Empire style that followed in the wake of 18th century Neo-Classicism. The jumbled space is to the serene Lincoln Memorial at the other end of the Reflecting Pool what Paris’ bombastic 1806 Arc du Caroussel, built for Napoleon, is to the elegant arch of Septimius Severus in the Roman Forum. Imperial kitsch, its extravagant hodgepodge of pomp and circumstance would make Willie and Joe, Bill Mauldin’s classic cartoon GIs, wisecrack over the pretension.


How did it happen?

Nature abhors a vacuum. The memorial was conceived in the early 1990s, in the aftermath of the Cold War. The United States, now the lone superpower, stood astride the globe. But the collapse of the Soviet Union left American identity in unexpected crisis. Washington, as journalist Russell Baker trenchantly observed, suddenly found itself without any purpose that could be called visionary or even faintly noble.

The American Century was drawing to a close. The last great monument to adorn the capital was the Vietnam Veterans Memorial -- an artistic masterpiece for a war that showed the nation at its worst. Brown and Childs had been instrumental in bringing Maya Lin’s stunning project to fruition. A World War II Memorial might best it.

And so this week, against the uncomfortable backdrop of another war, this triumphal act of hubris in stone and bronze will be dedicated. Willie and Joe -- and Rosie and the rest -- deserved much better. But this is what they got.


Christopher Knight is The Times’ art critic. He can be reached at