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Like the Man, the Memorial Breaks With Tradition

By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 27, 1997; Page G01

The memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt opening Friday is a work of art with epic reach.

Stretching 800 feet along the edge of the Tidal Basin in West Potomac Park, it pays tribute to the 32nd president by telling a vast story of social upheaval, political change, war and peace.

The narrative is of course selective, as much concerned with emotions as with facts. Nonetheless, the hours we spend in this place, making our way through its sequenced outdoor "rooms," are meant to evoke the 12 turbulent years of Roosevelt's presidency.

Time and movement are more crucial to the visitor's experience here than they would be at a more conventional monument. In the end, as we walk away from a roaring artificial waterfall toward the calm waters of the Tidal Basin, we are left to contemplate not only the Roosevelt era but also its ties to America's more distant past and to the half-century since FDR's death.

Yet for all the memorial's didacticism, it is also intended as a place "to be enjoyed for its own sake," says its creator, landscape architect Lawrence Halprin. In other words, we are supposed to remember, to learn and to take pleasure from this remarkable park within a park.

This memorial is a dramatic break with the pre-World War II monuments that dominate Washington's symbolic setting. It is not an object in the landscape, as are the extraordinary memorials to Presidents Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln. By contrast, it is in itself a symbolic landscape that defers gracefully at certain points to its surroundings, but fundamentally remains self-contained.

Although it includes figurative imagery -- a variety of bronzes by five American sculptors -- these works are not literally or metaphorically central in the same way as, say, the sculpted portraits of Lincoln and Jefferson at their respective memorials. Instead, these are integrated into the flow of the memorial, like illustrations in a story.

In no way does this memorial rely on Washington's familiar architectural signals of honor and memorialization -- the classical colonnade, the dome, the finely modulated plinth. Rather, it is modern in its vocabulary -- an abstraction based on the natural world, a pattern based on Halprin's observations of the way humans move about in a given space.

But in its insistence on telling a story and its emphasis on movement, the memorial also is a break with postwar modernist architecture. This can be seen clearly when one compares it to earlier designs for a Roosevelt memorialin the same location, which was approved by Congress in 1959.

The first of these was a competition-winning design by architects William Pedersen and Bradford Tilney, unveiled in 1960. It consisted of eight immense concrete tablets -- the highest was to rise 165 feet -- arranged roughly in a circle and engraved with key Roosevelt statements. Dubbed "Instant Stonehenge" by critics, it was disliked by the Roosevelt family and eventually turned down by Congress.

Then noted architect Marcel Breuer was engaged to do the design. His proposal for a pinwheel of triangular granite slabs surrounding a stone cube engraved with a likeness of Roosevelt was rejected by the federal Fine Arts Commission in 1967.

(This business of memorializing -- be it presidents or wars -- is never is easy. The Roosevelt memorial saga actually dates back to 1941, when FDR himself told Justice Felix Frankfurter he wanted only a modest monument -- nothing more than a block of stone. In 1965, as arguments over the larger memorial continued, just such a stone was placed on a little triangle of grass in front of the National Archives by a group of his friends. It remains an appealing aside, a minor note hardly in keeping with Roosevelt's role in history.)

After the defeats of the '60s, the congressionally appointed members of the FDR Memorial Commission were in something of a funk. By 1970 the group understandably had decided to forgo heroic modernism and came up with the idea of a rose garden adorned with a statue of Roosevelt. "Obviously, in the light of experience, we must impose upon ourselves the rule of some reason, so it will be as little controversial as possible," said then commission chairman Eugene Keogh, a former New York congressman.

Hiring a landscape architect to design the memorial evolved from this idea. Lawrence Halprin won the job in competition with five prominent firms. He recalls that his earliest sketches, dating to 1974, closely parallel the planned memorial, although in size and detail the design was altered quite a bit over the years.

Halprin's design contrasts vividly with the two '60s schemes. It is horizontal rather than vertical, extended rather than centered, active rather than passive. Although it contains a lot of paved surfaces, as those designs did, Halprin's memorial, with all of its planting, is infinitely softer, more like a park and less like an urban plaza.

The chief distinction, however, may be simply that Halprin's design is carefully -- and successfully -- calibrated to human scale. Human beings appeared to be but dwarfs in models of the earlier designs. Furthermore, those little humans appeared almost incidental, as if they were meandering about with no particular place to go.

This definitely is not the case in Halprin's memorial. There is much to impress the individual visitor -- 12-foot-high stone walls, magnificent trees, crashing waters -- but he or she will never feel dwarfed. Or aimless.

Visitors can set their own pace. They can pause or backtrack or even go through the entire memorial back to front. But however and wherever they wander, they will always find something of interest, for this is not one big space but a sequence of variegated places, each with something to offer, each with its own unique character. This memorial is as much a journey as it is a destination.

The journey begins in a paved forecourt, framed on one side by rows of shapely zelkova trees, on another by a small cubical building for restrooms and a book and souvenir shop. The focus is a long granite wall that announces the memorial's subject -- Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1882-1945 -- but offers no clue as to what lies beyond.

Then comes Room One, the first of four devoted specifically to Roosevelt's terms in office and generally to the tenor of American life at the time. Like the other three, it has a waterfall, massive walls, engraved Rooseveltisms, figurative sculpture and excellent trees, but somehow it is the least distinctive of the quartet -- it seems overlarge and a bit empty.

However, there is a significant saving grace: a view across the Tidal Basin to the Washington Monument. The vista is made all the more stunning, and meaningful, by the way Halprin sets it up.

As you come around that first wall, you pause in a little vestibule with a bronze bas-relief of the presidential seal, and you ponder the memorable "rendezvous with destiny" quotation. Then your eye is drawn to a beautiful Yoshino cherry tree and a calm waterfall. Your feet follow. It is only when you reach the middle of this plaza that you become aware of the opening through the trees that frames the great obelisk.

This sort of squeeze-and-release sequence, familiar in Japanese gardens, is a Halprin signature. The sudden appearance of the Washington Monument, after you round that wall, ties the memorial to its immediate physical context and establishes its place in the symbolic narrative of the Mall.

To Halprin, landscape architecture is in a sense a form of choreography. He plans for your movements by providing both emphatic and subtle clues as to direction, and by making sure there is always something to look at. The memorial is a study in dualities -- hard and soft surfaces, angular and rounded forms, smooth and rough textures, subtle and booming sounds, big and little, abstract and figurative, light and dark, expansive and intimate.

The most notable examples of these principles at work are the waterfalls. Starting with that broad sheet of falling water in Room One, we move around the corner and see a stepped waterfall in the distance -- the more forceful but well-ordered focal point of Room Two, and a fitting symbol of Roosevelt's efforts to mitigate the social damage of the Depression.

Here, as elsewhere, words and images contribute to the symbolism -- it is difficult to separate one design device from another in this cohesive work. There are gaunt figures in a bread line, among other sculptures, and a sentence that is provocative in today's political climate: "The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."

From densely packed Room Two we pass through the second of two restful passageways -- the squeeze-and-release, again -- hearing rather than seeing the waterfall to come. This one is powerfully compact, five or six strong flows of water cascading over huge blocks of stone set irregularly, like fallen boulders. It is quite beautiful, but seemingly unruly and destructive. We hardly need to be told -- although we are -- that war is in the air.

Before reaching the finale we are lured to contemplate Roosevelt's death in a sheltered niche where water plays a subtle role: Underneath Leonard Baskin's moving relief sculpture of the president's funeral cortege, a placid pool flows gently. But the finale beckons -- yet another waterfall, a tremendous crescendo of water, both aural and visual, confronting a plaza that expands outward, toward the Tidal Basin. It is an emotional release; here, the waterfall is like a life force.

A similar examination could be made of each motif -- statuary, textures, colors and so on. Each is meant to contribute its note to the whole composition. With this in mind, it should be mentioned that the addition of a sculpted figure of Roosevelt in a wheelchair, pressed for by advocates for the disabled and endorsed this week by President Clinton, is potentially disruptive. Although designer Halprin says he's willing to make such a change, the greatest of care will have to be taken lest it thoroughly disturb the memorial's carefully considered balance. It isn't simply a matter of plopping a statue in a plaza.

The plantings deserve special notice. Halprin and his team assembled a superb array of bushes and trees, mostly native to the mid-Atlantic (but with here and there a splendid import) -- red maples, sugar maples, crab apples, honey locusts, sweet gums, Akebono cherries, dogwoods, white pines, black pines, willow oaks.

These were positioned for aesthetic appeal, but also for practical purposes such as screening. An excellent example of using plants for expressive ends is the evergreen edge behind the war waterfall, where spiky black pines contrast with drooping, veil-like branches of weeping hemlocks. The screening function is best demonstrated from the outside. When viewed from the ball fields between the Tidal Basin and the Potomac River, the memorial is hidden -- perhaps disguised is the better word -- by a hillock of dense plantings.

The reality of this memorial does much to allay my concerns that it would be an invasive, foreign object in its Washington setting. This is due in part to the care of the reviewing agencies, which insisted on more plantings and less hardscape, greater screening from the ball fields and an overall reduction in size. Particularly important was the elimination of a proposed "interpretative center" that would have been tantamount to a mini-museum in the wrong place. Credit also is due to the manifest craftsmanship of the people who built the memorial: the William V. Walsh Construction Co. of Rockville was the primary contractor.

But the impressive result is mostly due to Halprin's great talent. There are faults, to be sure. Overstatement is one. At places in the memorial you cannot help but be aware that your emotions are being forcefully manipulated -- FDR's "I hate war" quotation, repeated twice in capital letters, being the outstanding example. More important, the very impulse to "tell the whole story" in a memorial sets a bad precedent. It encourages space-eating design and, in hands less sure than Halprin's, bathetic results.

By and large Halprin was able to transcend these limitations. In some ways he is a landscape designer who carries on the tradition of Frederick Law Olmsted, the great 19th-century creator of parks. Like Olmsted, Halprin believes in the socially redemptive power of landscape architecture. But Halprin is less bucolic than Olmsted. He doesn't disguise the man-made quality of his works. Rather, he celebrates it. In doing so with such resourcefulness, he celebrates us, too -- and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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