May 2004, Architecture

New World War II Memorial is Meant to Celebrate Democracy

So why does it resemble a monument to a defeated fascist?

The dedication this month of the National World War II Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C., comes amid global debate over the utilization of U.S. power. The dedication ceremony will justly celebrate the generation that has most clearly proven how American might can be an epic force for good. Yet the memorial fails to capture the democratic spirit that was World War II’s saving glory.

Critics who see the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq as part of an American imperial project may be tempted to see this graceless pile of granite as its architectural corollary. They would not be entirely wrong, at least in terms of the sense of inevitability and heedlessness that prevailed when the vexed memorial was in the planning stages.

No politician was prepared to disappoint the rapidly dying greatest generation, and so federal authorities settled for an unsuitable scheme despite cogent advance warning. Now we can see that the cloying 7.4-acre ensemble has not totally spoiled the splendid axis between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, as was long feared—the design was scaled down to prevent that. But the final result certainly mars the expansive vista along the Mall, which holds a key position in our national self-image.

The memorial consists of a granite-paved oval plaza with a reflecting pool at its center and two four-story triumphal arches at each end. One symbolizes the combat in Europe; the other stands for that in Asia. Fifty-six pillars—each of them slit at the center—encircle the plaza, one for each state and territory of the union at the time of the war. The plaza is oriented toward a large concave wall aligned with the Lincoln Memorial and studded with 4,000 gold-plated stars that symbolize the more than 400,000 U.S. soldiers who gave their lives in battle.

Bathos and Bombast

Design architect Friedrich St.Florian of Providence, Rhode Island—working with a team assembled by architect-engineer of record Leo A Daly that also includes consulting architect George E. Hartman of Hartman-Cox Architects—says he set out to create a memorial that was “highly celebratory,” intending the pools and waterworks within it to provide “an element of joy and happiness.” But it’s hard to reconcile that aspiration with this heavy-handed mass of gray stonework.

The bathos and bombast of the architecture is matched by overwrought sculptural elements by artist Raymond Kaskey. Take, for example, the thickly braided rope cast in bronze that links the columns as if to strangle any spontaneous emotion that might arise in a visitor’s heart. Instead, that heart sinks at the sight of uninspired rows of heavy bronze wreaths hanging on the front and back of each column. Four massive bald eagles loom within the two triumphal arches, garlands in their beaks, holding aloft an even larger laurel wreath, an ancient emblem of the victorious soldier’s return. (Thankfully, plans to erect another colossal sculpture in the midst of the main reflecting pool—to be an artistic interpretation of “the triumph of light over darkness”—were scrapped.)

One need only look out from the memorial toward the capital’s familiar touchstones—Henry Bacon’s Greek temple to Lincoln, Robert Mills’s obelisk to Washington, or John Russell Pope’s Roman-style Jefferson Memorial—to see how far short St.Florian’s effort at stripped classicism falls. At least it is likely to be the last such blemish on the Mall, since the World War II project led to a congressional moratorium on future memorials on a public space that should remain as unencumbered as possible.

Missed Opportunities

If the 1998 film Saving Private Ryan helped young Americans admiringly recall their parents’ and grandparents’ bravery in World War II, the St.Florian design, for which the film’s star Tom Hanks helped raise funds, is ill suited to do the same. Apart from its aesthetic failings, the memorial does little to elucidate the meaning of the war for future generations. Beyond an inscription at its entry—”Americans came to liberate, not to conquer, to restore freedom and to end tyranny”—visitors will be hard pressed to learn much of anything from this stony composition about democracy’s triumph over totalitarianism.

After St.Florian won the 1996 memorial competition, his original scheme came under severe attack. Writing in this magazine, then-editor-in-chief Deborah K. Dietsch accused the Austrian-born architect of using the language of Albert Speer, hardly the first time that a neoclassical structure in Washington had been denounced as fascist in style. But it’s lamentable that any such confusion should arise in the case of this particular memorial. Such critiques spurred the federal Commission of Fine Arts under the late J. Carter Brown, then chairman, to press for alterations. The panel succeeded in reducing the project’s scale, but after much fussing over details, did little to improve the design itself. Although St.Florian got a second go-round to avoid aping Speer, he and the commission members have ensured that part of Washington’s core would look right at home in Mussolini’s Rome.