Wild Blue Wonder
The New Air Force Memorial Is at Its Best When Reaching for the Sky

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 12, 2006

With one bold leap, the Air Force jumps into first place for having the most distinctive service memorial in the Washington area. Visible up close from I-395 and afar from the patio of the Kennedy Center, three stainless steel arms set on a promontory above Arlington National Cemetery tickle the sky.

From a distance they look like the ribs of a crown roast, or a metallic flower or the graceful ends of a scallion sliced for the crudites platter. The folks who built it, a private foundation formed by Air Force vets and supporters, give its shape a more specific and literal meaning: The spires represent a precision flying maneuver known as the "bomb burst."

The Marines, with their iconic Iwo Jima statue, still have a claim to the most recognizable service memorial. And the Navy, with its map of the world inscribed on a plaza in front of the National Archives, built a memorial that deserves a good citizen award, for its understatement and the invitation it offers to buskers, skaters, loafers and kids making out. But the Air Force wanted more than that. Ross Perot Jr., chairman of the Air Force Memorial Foundation, remembers a meeting with its designer, the late James Ingo Freed. The architect, who also designed the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Ronald Reagan Building, flew into Washington and asked a cabdriver to take him to the Navy Memorial. The what? Where?

"I promise you every cabdriver will know where it is," Perot remembers Freed saying of his proposed Air Force design. And so it now sits on the skyline, a $30 million sculpture as visible as the Washington Monument or the Capitol dome.

You have to be thankful the memorial, which will be dedicated on Saturday, arrived after the Navy and Marine memorials, lest it touch off an interdepartmental arms race to build ever bigger, bolder and more in-your-face designs.

Even so, there was a lot of interdepartmental bloodletting along the way. A very different version of the memorial, also designed by Freed, was intended for a spot on Arlington Ridge, near the Iwo Jima statue. That was in the mid-1990s. But the Marines were none too pleased by the encroachment, and plans for building something at the first site became mired in legal action, controversy and ultimately legislative fiat to prevent construction.

The first design, a blocky, five-pointed star set on supports that made it look a little like a lunar lander, was scrapped. A new site was found -- the current one, on a hillside next to the Navy Annex in Arlington -- and Freed came back and won a second design competition. If Version 1 looked like it was landing from outer space, Version 2 looks like it's blasting into the stratosphere.

Take that, Marines. The new memorial is better than the old one, and the new site far more inspiring than the ridge held by the Marines. Occasionally the byzantine grinding of bureaucratic gears spits out something better than expected.

On a sunny afternoon with only a few cotton-puff clouds in the sky, it is mesmerizing to stand at the base of the spires and look up. They are three different lengths, the tallest rising to 270 feet, but their relative heights seem to change as you move around. Although filled with concrete to about two-thirds of their height (and their tops are secured against wind load by a sophisticated damping system), they have a buoyant lightness and energy.

The color and mood of the monument change with the time of day and the weather. In that, it resembles Eero Saarinen's big metal arch in St. Louis -- indeed, while the construction elements of the two monuments are very different, Freed's vision feels indebted to Saarinen's, as if the Gateway Arch had been cut and curled like the ends of a ribbon.

The monument is set on a little plaza, with grass and trees, that stretches out like a ship's prow over the hillside. Beneath it are Arlington National Cemetery's infinitely sad rows of identical graves, and the hulking presence of the Pentagon. So long as you keep your eyes firmly set on Washington or the cemetery below, the view is spectacular. Turn 180 degrees, however, and you see some of the most dispiriting military architecture in the region -- the long rectangular boxes of the Navy Annex. There are plans to take those buildings down, and that can't happen a moment too soon.

The design of the memorial also deserves plaudits for hiding (in a minimalist shoe-box structure, behind a granite panel) the restrooms and offices -- a small space for two or three employees who will, among other things, coordinate public events with the cemetery. Limited finances, good taste and the fact that the Air Force already has a lot of museum space around the country devoted to its fabulous flying machines contributed to the most spectacular act of common sense: There is no museum or gift shop, the twin Gorgons of tacky memorial thinking.

But alas, there is a big mistake in the memorial's "honor guard," a pathetically literal, poorly conceived, badly executed and oversize bronze statue of four figures holding flags, which feels a little bit like a 35-cent plastic bride-and-groom figurine stuck on a $500 wedding cake. And there are two walls of inscriptions, some of them inspiring, but others little better than corporate boilerplate, that in many ways degrade the power of the overall design.

On one side, near the bathrooms, is a granite wall with the names of Medal of Honor recipients. Fair enough. The challenge of any memorial is to keep the attention squarely on the issue of service and sacrifice, and the inclusion of these names falls within that prescription.

On the other end of the plaza, however, is the aforementioned honor guard and a matching granite wall inscribed with Air Force "core values," a lot of B-minus verbiage mixed in with inspirational rhetoric and a list of the military campaigns conducted by the Air Force. This wall, and the honor guard, could, and should, be removed, because they take the memorial, and the response it demands, into dangerous territory.

As an abstract piece of sculpture, the memorial is broadly suggestive, but not particular in its meaning. But the dull literalism of the statues, by sculptor Zenos Frudakis, suggests the presence of a manipulative hand, a controlling intelligence that insists on taking free and unmitigated responses to the memorial and carefully channeling them through the numbing cliches of military-corporate-tourist culture. The statues distract the visitor from the essential reflective duty -- to honor service and sacrifice -- and introduce the specifics of military life: uniforms, medals, discipline. And they do it in a style little better than theme park kitsch.

Once you deflect the attention from service and sacrifice, and start celebrating the trappings of military culture, you can't help but raise (for some visitors, at least) the obvious fact that the military is a machine that destroys and kills. In a democracy, it is a sad necessity, the use of which is almost assuredly a sign that diplomacy and hope have failed.

But mostly these statues are silly and unnecessary accretions. We've seen this happen to decent and powerful memorials throughout Washington. Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial is now infected with the presence of similarly childish sculpture, and the primary idiocy of the otherwise innocuous Navy Memorial is, yes, a bluntly literal statue of a sailor walking across the world map.

If a memorial is as powerful, in its basic elements, as the new United States Air Force Memorial, why gum it up with second-rate bronze figurines? It's a sign that the people who design and build memorials don't trust the power of their best ideas. Or worse, they don't trust the freedom of the visitor to think and reflect without the presence of oversize G.I. Joes made of metal.

Perot says that the honor guard was always part of the design, and that the sculptures were included for a very specific purpose.

"Where is the photo op?" he says. "Where will people get their photo taken? The spires are too long."

It's a strangely candid admission, though it says a lot about the strange mix of motives, intentions and values that come together whenever a major new monument is built. Perhaps only a purist will insist that monuments should be exclusively or primarily places of reflection. They are also tourist draws, fundraising exercises and political statements. And of course they are the most elegant billboards in town. So, no surprise, once the earthbound and dispiriting statues of the honor guard have jolted your mind down from the dancing spires in the sky, the next thing you notice is the long list of corporations and other organizations that gave money to build the memorial: Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon -- and the United Arab Emirates air force.

Whose memorial is this, anyway? And how long has it been (about two years) since the Air Force's No. 2 acquisition official was sentenced to prison for arranging herself a fancy Boeing job while steering the company billions in dubious contracts?

Not the sort of questions one should ask when a new memorial opens. And they could have easily been avoided if the memorial hewed to pure abstraction. There is still time to short-circuit the inevitable chain of cynicism introduced by the cartoon military figures. Take them down, and scrub the walls of the corporate names that only serve to remind us of Eisenhower's prophetic warnings about the military-industrial complex and its cozy alliances. This memorial has the power to speak more eloquently than that, and about the only thing that really matters: people who made the ultimate sacrifice, for ideals that are more fundamental than military or corporate values.

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