War and Remembrance
By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 25, 2004
The best things about the National World War II Memorial are its precise placement on the Mall and the abiding sense of place that comes with the honored location.
As sensitively designed by architect Friedrich St. Florian, the memorial frames majestic views of the Lincoln Memorial to the west and the Washington Monument to the east. It is thus securely anchored within the Mall's national narrative. World War II, the cataclysmic event that altered the 20th century, certainly deserves such recognition.
The official dedication will take place on Memorial Day, May 31, but the $174 million project is almost done -- "ahead of schedule and under budget," in the words of Gen. P.X. Kelley, chairman of the American Battle Monuments Commission. Consequently, the commission is promising a soft opening as soon as this week, though the date is not certain.
There is, to be sure, something a bit stiff about the memorial's classically inspired design. A whiff of the academic informs the relentless mirror-image march of semicircular stone pillars -- 28 to a side, each ornamented with a pair of bronze wreaths -- that define its central plaza.
St. Florian may have been thinking a bit too much of the work of Otto Wagner, the great Viennese architect of 100 years ago. The difference, I suppose, is that Wagner, with his elegant austerity, was looking forward, while St. Florian, with his memorial design, is too keen on looking back.
And, yes, there are a few other faults a reasonable critic could find with the design. Though the quotations incised in its crisp granite blocks in the main are appropriately informative and moving, the memorial makers did get carried away with words in a couple of key places.
More telling, perhaps, is the possibility that the great paved plaza, measuring 337 feet north to south, lacks a true center of gravity, a place where the enormity of the war and the sacrifices made to win it undeniably grasps your heart. The intention is there in the wall of 4,000 gold stars, each signifying 100 military deaths, centered between two low waterfalls at the western edge of the plaza. But this wall, noble in intent, does not possess quite the emotional force one might have expected or wished.
Please note, however, my hesitation. On my first visit I felt this absence strongly, yet on repeated acquaintance I became less and less troubled by it. Moving about on foot is what this memorial is designed for, and the more I paced and considered each element in its turn, the more convinced I became, emotionally and intellectually, by the totality of the place.
Inclusiveness is the memorial's hallmark. Honored here are the more than 400,000 American soldiers, sailors, airmen and others killed in the long conflict, the 16 million men and women who served in the military, and the untold millions of citizens who supported the gigantic war effort. Even allied nations get a nod.
St. Florian is an Austrian-born U.S. citizen who began his career in the 1960s as a radically inventive modernist. But though he is a latecomer to the language of classicism -- another possible explanation for that stiffness -- it is abundantly clear that he understands how to deploy its resources. He uses classicism to create a hierarchy of spaces, from the monumental to the human scale, and he teamed with sculptor Ray Kaskey to make sure that every piece of ornamentation is weighted with significance.
In this memorial, St. Florian got the fundamentals right. The design, first of all, respects the place. During the long, controversial run-up to the memorial's final approval by federal reviewing agencies, opponents repeatedly maintained that it would block the Mall's central axis. It doesn't.
In fact, the memorial's form complements the site. The two arcs of stone pillars echo the semicircular arrangement of elm trees that border the memorial north and south. They frame distant views effectively and, in their cupping gesture, create a strong edge for the central plaza and its pleasant pool. As you walk about in the plaza, you are always aware of your place in the symbolic narrative, and you are conscious, as well, of being in a particular place with its own set of meanings.
And though the memorial does partially block a pedestrian's passage on the long walk between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, it is a pause with a big payoff: the memorial itself.
Visitors can enter the memorial at three spots -- the gentle decline from 17th Street NW and the graceful ramps that lead from the archways north and south. Then, to continue on the walk, they'll simply retrace their steps. Visitors can avoid the memorial altogether, of course, but most, I suspect, will be drawn in -- and then will want to stay awhile.
The memorial tells a complex story with straightforward conviction. The tall arched pavilions centered in the north and south walls visually set the tone. They are simply labeled: Atlantic and Pacific. The words are important. They indelibly establish the war's global reach and create a context for all that follows.
Likewise, the granite pillars that swing outward from these pavilions are simply inscribed with the name of a single state, territory and the District of Columbia. The arrangement of these pillars in itself strongly suggests unity and support. They are like arms extended in a protective gesture. The labels add specific, civic meaning to the form.
So, too, do the Kaskey-designed bronze wreaths suspended from muscular armatures in the tall voids in the center of the pillars. Alternating between clusters of oak and wheat, the wreaths clearly symbolize the combination of strength and bounty that stood behind the nation's mighty war effort. Intertwined in the low wall between the pillars, massive bronze ropes, also designed by Kaskey, powerfully amplify the message.
Everything fits. Kaskey simply outdid himself in the allegorical sculptures under the interior domes of the pavilions. Four bronze columns, ornamented with ropes at the base and top -- shades of Benjamin Henry Latrobe's corncob capitals -- support four magnificent American eagles, wings spread, each holding in its beak a ribbon that twists underneath a large laurel wreath. The ribbon is a masterstroke. It supports a heavy wreath that is six feet in diameter, and yet that symbol of victory seems almost to float on air. This sense of levitation is integral to the symbolic import of the group.
Water plays a central role. Small fountains encircle the bases of the two arched structures. Two waterfalls frame the wall of stars. Here, the sound is almost as important as the visual effect. The cascading water creates a nervous, insistent drumbeat that prepares you for the tension of the wall, where the gold stars are remindful of those that were put in the windows of American homes from coast to coast, signifying a loved one lost in a distant battle zone.
This is one place where words are unnecessary. Nonetheless, someone decided otherwise: "Here we mark the price of freedom." It is a sentence that seems too simple, too pat, too intrusive to cover all those deaths, all those lives. This is a place where one should not need to be told what to think or feel. Similarly, the sentence engraved in a large stone at the memorial's 17th Street entrance lugubriously describes the significance of its position on the Mall, as if visitors will not get it, just looking around.
The words that do work are quotations from people such as Dwight Eisenhower or Franklin Roosevelt, folks who knew a lot about the war. These inscriptions, splendidly designed and carved by Nicholas Benson, add something to the experience.
A large pool is the central feature of the plaza. This is, of course, the old Rainbow Pool, rebuilt and slightly reduced in size. Keeping this pool was fortunately a nonnegotiable condition of building on the site, but many of the entrants in the design competition eight years ago failed to integrate the pool convincingly into their proposals. By contrast, St. Florian took full advantage.
With its two vertical sprays off to the sides and its graceful oval of lesser spouts, this body of water automatically contributes a certain vivacity to the scene. Yet its calming sounds form a background for your thoughts. By cupping the formal pool so emphatically, St. Florian drew it into the symbolic narrative. In this context, you can hardly help but contemplate the vastness of the oceans over which the war was waged, or be reminded of water's life-giving power.
A facet of the memorial that surprised me is its transparency. From the inside you see out all around, except when standing in front of the wall of stars, where any distractions are unwanted. And from the outside you see in. Among the more delightful places to view the whole is from directly in back of the arcs of pillars, where you can rest your arms on the wall and take it all in.
Another pleasant surprise is the greenery. The joke that landscape architect James van Sweden, of the Washington firm Oehme, van Sweden and Associates, hears a lot is that he couldn't have had much to do in this project, where the focus is a paved plaza. But the total site area is 7.4 acres, about three times the plaza's size. Van Sweden sensitively softened its edges with a variety of plantings, and these welcoming, shady borders are where people will retreat from the summer sun.
Everybody did great work on the project -- the quality of the construction and craftwork is first-rate. Details mattered. Even the water drain grilles, designed by Kaskey, are lovely.
This is to be expected, of course, on a job of such magnitude, but even so, it deserves recognition. In addition to the folks already mentioned, credit should be given to Leo A. Daley, the Washington firm that did the construction documents and managed the design team, and the formidable construction consortium of Tompkins Builders, Grunley Construction and William V. Walsh Construction.
Still to come are Kaskey's 24 bas-relief bronzes, to be installed in rectangular niches in the walls bordering the principal entrance, 12 to a side. Depicting home-front scenes from the "arsenal of democracy," these fortunately are all that remain of the bloated education program originally proposed for the memorial.
It's still astonishing to contemplate what the American Battle Monuments Commission thought was necessary: an interior space about the size of the Freer Gallery of Art for educational and historical displays. Clearly it would have overwhelmed the site, as was amply demonstrated in St. Florian's swollen original design. That design had its virtues, but it was way too big. Getting rid of this bad idea enabled the architect to focus on telling the story with architecture -- the way it ought to be told in a memorial.
The result is not a quick-visit memorial. It demands and repays time and movement. The messages are complex and stirring, and the effect is cumulative. It is not so much a healing memorial, St. Florian says, as it is celebratory of a great and necessary achievement. You come away convinced that the World War II generation has found its proper home on the Mall.