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Thursday, August 12th, 2004


Their Last Battle: The Fight for the National World War II Memorial

by Nicolaus Mills

The Memory Mall

A review by Nathan Glazer

The opening of the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. on Memorial Day seems to have been a huge success. For the moment at least, architectural critics and art critics, who had almost uniformly opposed the memorial's design and its placement prominently on the National Mall, between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, were silent, so as to allow the celebrants to have their day. According to reports, veterans -- two-thirds of them are now gone, the newspapers say -- were moved, delighted, pleased. Their sacrifice and their heroism were finally being recognized, long after the veterans of Vietnam and Korea had their memorials.

Two things are reliably the case, it seems, about the major memorials on the Mall, our national celebratory and ceremonial public space. It takes us a very long time to design and to build them, and they are always accompanied by controversy about their location, their design, their meaning, and their appropriateness. The World War II Memorial turns out to be no exception.

The Washington Monument was finally dedicated eighty-five years after Washington's death; the Lincoln Memorial was completed nearly sixty years after Lincoln's assassination; and the Jefferson Memorial took more than a century after his death to reach realization. The FDR Memorial improved the pace, opening in 1997, a mere fifty-two years after Roosevelt's death in office. (In his new book about the World War II Memorial, Nicolaus Mills notes the coincidence that it was exactly forty-nine years after the presidents' deaths that groundbreaking occurred on the Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt memorials.) By historical standards, then, the World War II Memorial has not done too badly.

Nor has it been particularly more controversial than others. What is unique about the World War II Memorial is that it represents either a remarkable aberration in the history of public and official taste or an equally remarkable tectonic shift in that taste. The last classical monument on or near the Mall was the Jefferson Memorial, fought over in the 1930s. Everything that has gone up on or near the Mall since has reflected, timidly or boldly, the modernist revolution and the abandonment of historical models in art and architecture: the Museum of American History, the East Wing of the National Gallery, the Air and Space Museum, the Hirshhorn Museum, and, signifying the complete triumph of modernism, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which was also hugely popular. (The enormous Ronald Reagan Building apes the classical, but its backward-looking style may be excused and explained by its presence in the Federal Triangle.)

Even if the furthest reaches of modernism were eschewed, there was no effort, in anything that went up in this revered space after the Jefferson Memorial, to refer back to historical styles in any way that an ordinary observer could recognize, and in particular to the longest-lasting style of all, and the one that had been most influential in the building of the capital until World War II: I mean the classical style. Was it likely that a classicizing monument could ever again find its way to the Mall? Well, now it has; and one must contemplate what that means for the history of design and for public taste.

The public does not design memorials; architects and designers do. But the public certainly plays a major role, by way of resolutions in Congress setting up memorial commissions and defining their scope, and through the judgment of the host of commissions and committees that must approve memorials, particularly if they are to intrude on the Mall. These democratic modifications of the artistic process have proliferated in the past century, but their number has not made the task of deciding on the siting and the design of monuments any easier. In the case of the World War II Memorial, as we learn from Nicolaus Mills's full and fine account of the building of the memorial, there was the American Battle Monuments Commission, which was given by a House and Senate joint resolution in 1995 the "legal authority to establish a national World War II memorial within the monumental core area of Washington."

But that was not all. The first meeting to consider the site already included representatives of the National Capital Planning Commission, the Commission of Fine Arts, the National Capital Memorial Commission, and the National Park Service, all of whom had some statutory rights and authority over site selection, and most of whom could participate in the selection of a design, to the point of veto. (Why it took fifty years for Congress to even vote on a memorial is an interesting question, and Mills has some thoughts on the matter. At the war's end, he suggests, sentiment favored living memorials -- schools, parks, playgrounds, and the like. Mills quotes Philip Johnson, Percival Goodman, and Robert Moses agreeing that these would be better than stone and bronze. So the modernists and the public were of one mind that we needed no great national monument.)

If there was to be a site on the Mall, how could it be lesser than the modest sites of the Vietnam and Korea memorials, nestled in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial? And if it was to be a larger site than these, how could it not be the ornamental pool to the west of the Washington Monument? But if the memorial was to be located there, would it not interfere with the unbroken vista from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial? All these considerations and questions preceded an open public competition -- almost all the great memorials have required such competitions -- for the design of the memorial, for how could one design it if it was not clear where it was to be?

The controversy over this location has never been stilled. The height of the winning proposed memorial, now realized, does not interfere unduly with the view; but that was only one of the problems with the site. The National Mall in the 1990s was basically the completed fulfillment of the design proposed in 1902 by the architectural establishment of that time. The state of the capital in that era, one hundred years after its founding, was not a happy one. A Senate resolution created a Senate Park Commission, which was asked to propose what should happen to the Mall. At the time, the Mall was a mess, with a railroad station and a rail line being only one of its indignities. Daniel Burnham of Chicago, Charles McKim of New York's McKim Mead and White, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., the son of the great landscape designer, and Augustus St. Gaudens made up the commission, and in remarkably short order they delivered a grand plan for the Mall. Rarely in the history of planning has a large-scale plan been realized with so little departure from its essentials, though it did take a century to do so.

According to their plan, the Mall was to be extended beyond the Washington Monument onto reclaimed land from the Potomac River and to climax in a classical temple to Lincoln, which was realized. The north-south axis running through the Mall along the line of the Washington Monument was to climax in the south with a great monument, which was also realized when the Jefferson Memorial opened. The Mall between the Capitol and the Washington Monument was to be lined by museums and great public buildings, and that was also fulfilled (though in mid-century their style shifted from the classicism displayed in the Senate Park Commission's illustrations to modernism of one kind or another). So the Mall was completed, filled, finished. Could another great monument be shoehorned in between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial without damage to the place?

Many thought not. But the ornamental pool below the Washington Monument was really the only possible site for a memorial that had to be more prominent than the Vietnam and Korean war memorials, and this was the site chosen. A competition -- open to all, identities not revealed -- was set. The competitors were sharply constrained by the existing features of the site. It almost dictated a symmetrical design, the kind that does not comport easily with modernism.

No Maya Lin emerged from this anonymous competition. Six out of 407 proposals submitted were chosen for a second round of competition, all but one by established and well-known architects, one by a world-famous architect. Only one proposal of the six came from a group of unknown designers still in architecture school. Mills gives a sketch and a description of each of the six. It is not clear that any would have been a great improvement over the winning proposal by Friedrich St. Florian. Only one of the six -- the one by the students -- suggests the tougher side of modernism. They proposed two bunkers of disparate form. All the designers were constrained by the need to provide a great deal of exhibition space, which could only be underground if it was not to interfere with the vista -- a requirement that was later abandoned.

Friedrich St. Florian, the winner, was born in Graz in 1932, as Friedrich Florian Gartler. He studied at its Technische Universität, and started almost immediately to win prizes in major competitions. Often teamed with his friend and fellow student Raimund Abraham (whose recent Austrian Cultural Forum on 52nd Street in New York is much admired), he worked in the mainstream and at the extremes of modernism. When he changed his name to Friedrich St. Florian, the "St." referred to the Italian futurist Antonio Sant' Elia. His admiration for the American architecture of the time led him as a Fulbright scholar to the United States in 1961, and to an appointment at the Rhode Island School of Design. He was impressed by the visionary Buckminster Fuller, and one of his projects, Mills tells us, was an "imaginary architecture" based on Fuller's notion that air travel would make highways unnecessary, and consisting of "imaginary spaces in the sky based on the holding patterns of aircraft over New York City airports."

A high point in St. Florian's varied career of teaching, projects, exhibitions, and competitions was winning second prize (together with Abraham and a third architect) in the competition for the Pompidou Center in Paris. But not much by him was built. Little in this past foreshadowed his winning memorial design of columnar forms ornamented with bronze wreaths placed symmetrically around the oval pool, with arches of triumph at the two ends. Marble, bronze, wreaths, laurels, eagles: these were not the materials and the forms of modernist architecture and design.

While the specific forms in St. Florian's design were far from correct classical architecture -- and thus open to attack by the few remaining exponents of classicism -- they were very familiar to architectural historians and critics, and reminded them of the stripped-down classicism that was popular in the architecture of the 1930s in the United States -- and in Nazi Germany, as well as other places. (Osbert Lancaster, in a satiric picture-book history of architecture, once showed on two adjacent pages sketches of almost identical buildings in this style -- but one, it was revealed by the labels, is in "Third Reich" style and the other in "Marxist Non-Aryan" style.)

The editor of a leading architecture magazine called the St. Florian design "painfully reminiscent of designs by Nazi architect Albert Speer." One cartoon, reproduced by Mills, shows Bill Mauldin-style disheveled GIs observing the monument skeptically. One is saying, "Looks like an officers club ... a German officers club." One can imagine how painful all this was to the architect, an Austrian immigrant who had paid his dues to modernism and Americanism, and was an admirer of Louis Kahn and Kahn's teacher Paul Cret (a master of the stripped-down classical style, whose works can be seen on and near the Mall). One wonders whether St. Florian would have been chosen had the competition not been anonymous.

The connection of architectural style to ideologies and political regimes is not a simple matter. Recall that Roman imperial forms came to represent American democracy; and some argue that their adoption represented in itself a new American imperialism. Artistic taste and political meaning clash in contradictory and confusing ways. I understand the German chancellor of the newly reunified Germany preferred a more restrained version of the Chancellery that was to be built in the new capital of Berlin, but when he was shown a picture of a Nazi-era building that looked remarkably like the sober design that he favored, he reluctantly went for the modernist design that has since been built.

The host of critics of St. Florian's design did not prevail, obviously. Some distinguished architecture critics did defend it: Ada Louise Huxtable, Witold Rybczynski, Robert Campbell. But it is interesting to note that whereas the controversy over Maya Lin's minimalist Vietnam Veterans Memorial did not shake universal support for it among critics and influenced only less sophisticated supporters, some contributors, and some of the veterans themselves, the controversy around the World War II Memorial was confined for the most part to critics and newspaper columnists. The first debate was among the public at large; the second was a debate among elites. There does not seem to be any record of opposition to the World War II Memorial from veterans' groups, not a hint of demurral or reservation from the thousands of surviving veterans of World War II who came to its opening.

In the reporting of The Washington Post -- many of whose writers had been critical of the memorial -- on the dedication ceremonies, one reads in a headline, "National World War II Memorial Design's Critics Should Use Hearts, not Eyes, Some Say." One visitor is quoted: "It's not here for looks and design and remarks about appearance. It's for remembrance, to remember what the guys went through." Another said: "As long as it's a memorial, it could be a hole in the ground with a plaque on it and it wouldn't matter." The last speaker did not realize how apt her remark was. One of the most admired memorials of recent years (I mean among sophisticates) is the one that marks the Nazi burning of condemned books. On the plaza off Unter den Linden in Berlin where the books were piled and burned, one now finds a plaque, and a Plexiglas window through which one can view underground a hole, lined with empty shelves.

The contradictions multiply. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was universally approved by the critics, but it was attacked by some populists. Ross Perot, who had funded the competition, protested; Representative Henry Hyde organized congressional opposition; Secretary of the Interior James Watt held up the construction permit. President Ronald Reagan did not attend the dedication, and did not visit the memorial for a year. But the memorial became immensely popular -- indeed, it is now the most visited of any of the shrines on the Mall. Did the architecture critics know something that the memorial's opponents, who thought they spoke for the people, did not?

The World War II Memorial saw the reverse configuration of response: resistance from the architecture critics and historians, but a quiescent public and public officials quite ready to accept St. Florian's design, and enthusiastic at its dedication. Will public appreciation wither, and expert criticism be shown to be right, as popular distaste rises for the World War II Memorial? There are monuments of great scale on the Mall that hardly anyone notices these days. Consider the enormous memorial to Ulysses S. Grant, with the second largest equestrian statue in the world (the first is at the Victor Emmanuel monument in Rome), and many vividly sculpted soldiers and horses, spreading over a great expanse of the Mall.

Memorials and monuments are peculiar things, and they have never been more peculiar than in the age of modernism. Monuments must draw upon the dominant artistic tendencies and artists of the day -- and yet at the same time appeal to the masses whose taste and values the modern artist usually spurns. We have seen a rising tide of rebellion against bourgeois society among artists for the last two centuries, and quite early in the twentieth century the modernists had fully eclipsed the traditionalists. Sometimes a contemporary modern artist and popular taste come together, and the dominant example is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. But all too often there is no way of bringing together the artists of the day with the sentiments of the public. Consider the artists who have work in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum: Richard Serra, Sol Lewitt, Ellsworth Kelly. What their pieces, all of them entirely typical of their respective styles, have to do with the Holocaust God only knows. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is so successful because at the time there was no such thing as a "Maya Lin" (that is, an artwork interpreted as representing her) to eclipse the meaning that her monument intended.

Is the World War II Memorial an aberrational jab in the direction of classicism, or does it in fact represent a new skepticism about modernism in which the most advanced style becomes just another possible style? We will know more as new monuments crowd in on the Mall. The Museum of the American Indian is about to open on the last site on the Mall available for a major building, and it will be interesting to see what the architecture critics think. The African American Museum is due, and will have a site by congressional decree as close to the Mall as can be managed. There will be a monument to the Adamses -- and can a monument to the only presidents among the first half-dozen who did not have slaves be denied a major location? And after the African American Museum, will a Hispanic museum be denied?

The crowding on the Mall, which we seem unable to resist, may be a more serious problem for civic design than the style of the new monuments and buildings. Mills thinks the criticism of site and style is misguided. He does not accept the view that the Mall should be considered "a completed urban work of art," never to be touched. He does not believe, as Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton, a critic, put it, that the Mall is "the urban equivalent of the Grand Canyon." Nor need a memorial reflect "the architecture of the time." He argues, against Herbert Muschamp, for the "virtues of taking a more pluralistic approach" to contemporary design. Perhaps most important for him, the memorial does speak to the veterans of today. Who can be certain (as Roger Lewis of The Washington Post and Michael Kimmelman of The New York Times asserted) that it will not speak to the future?

But finally Mills is too ready to surrender the distinctive and rare qualities of the space that existed before the monument was built. A friend present at the celebration of the opening of the new World War II Memorial, a lover of the Mall, writes that "the treasured space of the Mall and its scenic beauty had completely disappeared." If that is so, it is sad indeed, and rather more important than the style of the new memorial. The new memorial is busy, heaping forms and inscriptions and decorations in a space that was serene and silent. If the tranquility of this hallowed precinct is indeed gone, this is more important, and more discouraging, than a shift in style.

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