Next Exit Marine Land

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 31, 2006

They've turned on the air conditioning inside the new National Museum of the Marine Corps, and they've hung fighter planes from the massive girders that poke above the skyline as you drive along Interstate 95 past Quantico. Although it won't open to the public until Nov. 10, the shell of the building and the distinctive 210-foot mast and sail-like glass structure that tops it-- are already attracting notice from passersby. Inside, it's still very much a work zone.

If you build a house near an interstate, you usually do everything you can to deny the presence of the roaring asphalt monster in your back yard. But build a church or a corporate headquarters or a museum, and there's a risky though understandable impulse to be seen, to tease a little curiosity out of the car-encased audience speeding by at 75 miles an hour. Buildings in view of interstates (think of the Mormon Temple on the Beltway) often feel steroidal. They must be big to be seen over the trees and the traffic, and they're often flashy so that the basic idea can be absorbed quickly.

Architecture follows the logic of the billboard, and not often to its artistic advantage.

The sloping metal peak of the new Marine Corps Museum isn't just an eye-catcher from the roadway, however. It is, according to the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, which will run the site (a public-private venture with the Marines), an iconic shape inspired by the famous photograph of the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi during the bloody World War II battle for Iwo Jima. And sure enough, you can see the inspiration clearly in a logo for the new museum, which shows the famous cluster of Marines with the new building's peaked top superimposed over them. Soaring above a round base, a bold "mast" parallels the line of the flagpole they struggled to raise on difficult terrain.

It's tempting, in the sloppy jargon of architecture-speak, to call this sort of thing an "echo." In an effort, perhaps, to assuage the age-old fear of juxtaposing new and old, architectural rhetoric makes of our cities an endless echo chamber. In Washington, the Kennedy Center echoes the Lincoln Memorial; and innumerable dull office buildings, with a few classical elements slapped on, echo the older, more imposing and more interesting architecture of the early federal city.

There is, perhaps, a sequence of echoes in the new Marine museum. The building echoes the famous Marine Memorial statue in Arlington, which echoes the black-and-white photograph of the event, which was itself an echo of sorts, a restaging of an earlier flag-raising on the hill that was not quite so visually dramatic.

The problem with this metaphor is that echoes, by definition, get smaller and softer through their iterations, while the flag-raising icon only gets bigger. The original photograph was cropped to make the soldiers more prominent. They became yet more impressive when cast into huge bronze figures, and are more impressive still now that their basic outline has been repeated in a soaring monumental space.

But it is a strange echo that only gets larger. In fact, the new museum is the most recent result of an effort to concentrate and increase the power of the original image, an effort that parallels historical trends since the Second World War. Since then, the meaning of American wars has generally grown murkier, and American opinion more divided on the rightness of subsequent conflicts. And the military has become an all-volunteer force. In an age of ambivalence, the military needs powerful icons for recruitment, especially since 2001 when joining the forces brings with it the very distinct likelihood of getting shot at.

Retired Col. Raymond A. Hord, of the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, shows off the entrance of the new Marine Corps Museum.
Retired Col. Raymond A. Hord, of the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, shows off the entrance of the new Marine Corps Museum.(Robert A. Reeder - The Washington Post)
Architecturally, the glass and metal structure rising above I-95 is a kind of "recruitment" for visitors, drawing them off the highway and into the museum (admission is free). Once in, the visitor is in the marble-clad "Leatherneck Gallery," a round, solemn space with some spicy quotations carved on the walls ("Come on you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?" is one, attributed to 1st Sgt. Dan Daly). It would be a stronger space if not quite so cluttered with particular details meant to ensure the visitor that this isn't just any old modernist space, but very particularly a "Marine" space. There are planes and a helicopter, and a ship's tower, made from military metal sheeting. Portholes ring the gallery, with low benches beneath them.

Museum leaders describe the building as a large, inspirational center ring, with gallery spaces that are meant to be "immersive" and filled with multimedia offerings (one exhibit will give visitors the sounds and sights of a beach landing). The visitor files through exhibitions devoted to different wars, and to what it's like to join and train with the Marines. The Holocaust Museum in Washington may have been an inspiration for some elements of the new museum's design (by Fentress Bradburn Architects, a Denver-based firm), though the Marine museum is even more starkly divided between its center, contemplative space and surrounding exhibition areas.

"Immersive" is the reigning buzzword for museums these days (think of the Spy Museum), and the trend away from objects and education and toward narratives and dramatization can clearly be seen in the shape of this new building. Once you leave the Leatherneck Gallery you really have no clear sense of the building's shape, dimensions or layout.

To make an immersion museum, you need "immersive space," which is essentially horizontal, theatrical space, where you can control lighting and sound effects. You need to enclose and control movement so as to build a narrative and generate curiosity and excitement. Immersive space isn't storage space, or traditional gallery space with objects, but rather a collection of dramatic tunnels.

The problem is that immersion space isn't inspiring architecturally, hence the need here for that soaring vaulted, sloping domelike thing, sitting like a cap on what is otherwise essentially a warehouse built into a hill. This may be the biggest challenge for today's museum architects: How do you make impressive buildings that must function like small amusement parks or a Halloween haunted house?

An even larger question is whether the trend toward immersive museums is a lasting one. They can be a great deal of fun, especially with children in tow, but the sense, after going through them, is that you've seen the show . Perhaps you'll see it two or three more times, but ultimately having seen a show is a very different experience from that of most traditional museums, which is more like going to a library. You'll always have a reason to go back to the library, because its resources are only as exhaustible as your curiosity. But how many times will you rent "Full Metal Jacket" or "The Sands of Iwo Jima"? The only way to solve the problem of the "been there, done that" museum is to build a lot of them and build them big.

Implicit in that last paragraph is the rift, in our culture, between the economics and aesthetics of a widely populist approach, and the more narrowly defined (often dubbed "elitist") economics and aesthetics of old-guard cultural institutions. The new Marine museum is very much in the former camp. What's fascinating, from an architectural perspective, is how that plays out in design.

One last detail, worth noting: The entrance to the museum is framed by two long concrete walls, opening like radiating spokes from the round central gallery.

Seen from above, they look like jaws, an open maw, ready to greet and process and disgorge visitors at a rate the Textile Museum could only dream of (in a millennium of Sundays). The building, when it opens, will have 118,000 square feet, with an expandable design that will bring it, at some point, to 181,000, including an Imax theater. They expect 200,000 to 600,000 visitors a year.

This is a museum about volume, energy and speed, rather like the highway it overlooks. Some people look at superhighways and see excitement, mobility and freedom. Others see anxiety, restlessness and urgency. It is the last of these, urgency, that one feels most strongly in the architecture of the Marine museum. This is an expanding country, a diversifying country, and a country that is essentially failing in the project of teaching its citizens fundamental lessons of history, democracy and the vulnerabilities of democracy. This building is put together to bring people out of their private space, in huge numbers, to teach them a little, very quickly, about the cost of liberty (and maybe the dangers of empire).

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