Sizing up Washington monuments

October 7, 2011

Sponsors of memorials in the nation’s capital can be susceptible to “monument-itis,” defined as the compulsion to erect huge, costly memorials commemorating America’s historic figures and events. But monument-itis also can lead to excessive consumption of public acreage. This especially is a problem in the heart of Washington, where the supply of available federal park land is dwindling.

Some memorials need to be large because of their special place within the urban landscape. But to be sufficiently inspiring and meaningful, commemorative works do not have to be supersized and super expensive.

Properly commemorating the historic accomplishments of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. did not inevitably require using four acres of National Park landscape at the edge of the Tidal Basin and 30-foot-high granite sculptures. And the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial did not need to cost $120 million.

Less could have been more. A fitting memorial to King at that site could have been built on one or two acres of parkland. An artful sculpture rendered a bit closer to life-size could have been as powerfully evocative as a towering 30-foot monolith. Would King’s persona and historic significance be any less palpable or less inspiring at 12 or 15 feet instead of 30 feet? A more humanly scaled King memorial on less acreage would have cost substantially less than $120 million and probably could have been completed several years earlier.

The memorial to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, being designed by Frank Gehry, will take command of a four-acre, rectangular open space south of the Air and Space Museum. Bisected by a segment of Maryland Avenue, the space is bounded by Independence Avenue SW, Fourth and Sixth streets, and the Lyndon Baines Johnson Department of Education Building. The site will become a four-acre civic park devoted entirely to Eisenhower, yet the park will be large enough to comfortably encompass two or three memorials.

Memorial locations per se are not necessarily problematic. Placing the King memorial next to the Tidal Basin, on the “line of leadership” between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, is appropriate, as is creating a likeness of King and inscribing his eloquent words in stone. Honoring Eisenhower within a verdant, redeveloped park surrounded by several federal buildings and the Air and Space Museum makes sense.

But the King and Eisenhower memorials continue the tradition of building too big. The beautifully designed Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, a series of four, linked outdoor rooms partially enclosed by stone walls, consumes a whopping 7.5 acres of West Potomac Park. The triumphal National World War II Memorial encompasses 7.4 acres of prime territory stretching across the Mall between 17th Street SW and the east end of the Lincoln reflecting pool.

The best memorials accomplish several things at once. They help current and future generations remember specific historical figures and events. Their interpretive elements, typically words or images inscribed in stone or metal, teach and inspire people while affecting them emotionally. And the best memorials, through design and surrounding context, elicit thoughtful contemplation. None of these attributes depends on being big.

Often the most evocative, thought-provoking memorials are relatively small, drawing much of their visual and emotional power from their surroundings. For example, at Arlington National Cemetery, President John F. Kennedy’s hillside grave site consists of an Eternal Flame burning at the center of a simple circular stone resting on a rectangular terrace of stones. But this modest, intimate composition is cradled within an extraordinary landscape — historic Custis-Lee Mansion on the hill above, cemetery below, America’s capital city beyond. This juxtaposition makes the Kennedy grave site profoundly memorable.

Washington has many modestly sized commemoratives depicting famous Americans as well as historic figures from other countries. Most are on sites that do not consume acres of land.

A bronze, 8-foot-tall Mahatma Gandhi stands atop a stone pedestal within a small triangular park at 21st and Q streets, NW. Modestly clad Gandhi is in full stride, walking stick in hand, with a stoic yet determined expression on his face. A bronze, near life-size Winston Churchill stands in a small park adjacent to Massachusetts Avenue near the British Embassy. Squarely facing the avenue, Churchill’s hand is raised aloft with his familiar V for victory sign.

Size matters for the Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial and Washington Monument, but not just because they commemorate great national leaders. Beyond their commemorative role, they serve as visually prominent, historically symbolic architectural landmarks strategically located within Washington’s grand urban landscape. Along with the U.S. Capitol Building and the White House, they define and anchor the Mall’s major east-west and north-south axes. Thus their grand aesthetic duty demanded grand dimensions.

In decades, and indeed centuries to come, sponsors will keep proposing new memorials, hoping to locate them on or near the Mall. But Congress has decreed most of the Mall off-limits for building any more memorials. For this reason, memorial sponsors in the future will need to consider sites elsewhere in the city. And they will need to be convinced that a great memorial can be designed without being great in size.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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