Underground and Yet So Over the Top

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, September 2, 2006

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial visitor center, proposed for a site just north of the Lincoln Memorial, is an idea whose time should never come.

The center was approved in early August by the National Capital Planning Commission, bowing to pressure from Congress, specifically the House. My hope is that it's not too late for the Senate and the Commission of Fine Arts to act sensibly and stop this project, or for the House and the planning commission to reconsider their support.

This visitor center should never get off the ground -- or in this case, be buried underground, because its 25,000 square feet of space and interpretive exhibits are to be entirely subterranean. For a number of reasons, it's fair to ask how the project got this far.

Sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund Inc., the project contradicts policies governing new construction on the Mall. To approve it, the National Capital Planning Commission and Congress had to ignore their own Mall development moratorium.

Building this underground visitor center would establish a bad precedent. If an interpretive mini-museum is justifiable for this particular memorial site and this particular war, then why wouldn't every war memorial site also be entitled to a visitor center? Why not build visitor centers for all memorials, no matter what they commemorate?

Recall that the initial program and competition-winning design for the World War II Memorial included 70,000 square feet of visitor information and exhibition space, all to be tucked below the memorial facing 17th Street NW. Fortunately, sensible thinking prevailed and that absurd idea was rejected.

As a condition of last month's approval, no part of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial visitor center can be visible from the Lincoln Memorial, Constitution Avenue or 23rd Street NW. That will be very difficult to accomplish, because an underground building open to the public can never be totally invisible.

There are limited strategies for entering a subterranean structure from ground level. You can build an on-grade entry pavilion -- the Louvre solution -- containing stairs, elevators and escalators. Or you can gouge out a long, wide, deep swath of earth, creating a rift in the flat landscape to accommodate a ramp gently sloping down to the below-grade level. Could the latter strategy be under consideration, perhaps a topographic reference to the depressed ground in front of the Vietnam Memorial wall? Let's hope not.

Whatever the strategy, accessibility and safety code requirements would call for at least one elevator and at least two emergency-exit stairways connecting the below-grade center to the surface or to the bottom of an exterior ramp leading up to the surface. Ventilation structures also would have to somehow erupt from below. Is it proponents' notion that vegetation will camouflage all these potentially visible elements? If so, it only further reveals how architecturally dubious this concept is.

I also have architectural doubts about the metaphorical aspects of the project. At this site, a structure concealed in the earth, divorced physically and visually from the memorial it seeks to explain, evokes bunker imagery and defensiveness. Vietnam veterans have publicly opposed the project because of the negative connotations associated with such an underground building.

Burying an interpretive visitor center between the Lincoln and Vietnam memorials is neither the right way to educate people about America's Vietnam experience nor the right way to build.

Instead, what Washington needs is a first-rate museum of American military history that comprehensively traces and explains the nation's wars. Using artifacts, photographs, documentary films and written and recorded narratives, such a museum could recount the complex history of America's military involvements. This history should be presented not as independent episodes of war and battle, but rather as part of a historical continuum of world events, politics, culture and geography.

A national military museum could be sponsored by Congress and the Department of Defense, by veterans' organizations, by the Smithsonian Institution or by some combination of them. Appropriate sites could be found in Washington or Arlington.

This is not the first time I have advocated a military museum. During the controversy in the late 1990s over the World War II Memorial, I wrote that a place of commemoration on the Mall is different from a place of exhibition and education. Each place has its own goals and requirements. Unlike a museum, a memorial evokes contemplation, memory and emotion through representational or symbolic form. A powerful memorial, like Maya Lin's design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, needs no visitor center to accompany, interpret and detract from it.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, Congress and the National Capital Planning Commission should reverse course on this ill-conceived project and instead focus interest, energy and resources on something truly desirable -- a national military museum -- where the whole story of the Vietnam War, and America's other wars, can be fairly told.

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

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