Responding to the resounding rejection last year of its proposed 110-foot-high memorial arch, the U.S. Navy Memorial Foundation yesterday unveiled a revised design featuring a bandstand, a seating area, a pool of water and major sculptural elements within or around a sunken plaza in Market Square on Pennsylvania Avenue.
The board of the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp. was sufficiently impressed to endorse the concept unanimously.
Although not without problems, the new proposal is a big improvement over the arch idea--partly because it is not so big. The arch was a preposterously large gesture for its place, and was to have been burdened with functions foreign to its form and symbolic intent. Besides being an arch, it was to have served as a bandstand, a storage chamber and an audio-visual naval museum.
All of this would have made it a strange-looking arch, and would have cluttered up a nice public square, as well. Fortunately, at the request of the PADC design staff, the memorial foundation pared the program significantly, removing its call for the museum, the storage facilities, the covered bandshell and large numbers of movable chairs.
The basic change from massive vertical to low-lying horizontal with a few vertical peaks better fits the character of Market Square, too. The square, situated between 7th and 9th streets NW, is where Washington's major symbolic axis--Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the Capitol--intersects with an important minor view running along 8th Street from the National Archives to the National Portrait Gallery. The low pond and amphitheater will do nothing to emphasize this view, but it won't obscure it as the arch promised to do.
The proposal submitted to the PADC board is the joint work of Conklin Rossant, the New York architectural firm that also prepared the plans for the arch, and Stanley Bleifeld, a Weston, Conn., sculptor chosen by the memorial foundation after the arch was rejected. The new proposal is similar to the final compromise solution to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in that it combines a horizontal element, more or less abstract, with flagpoles and vertical figurative sculptures.
The striking part of the plan is Bleifeld's concept of filling a circular plaza, which averages about 6 feet below grade, with wave-like forms sculpted in granite. These would be quite high and rough and rise from a pool of water near the southern part of the plaza. On the northern half of the circle the waves would be gentle, and also serve as seats for audiences at the military band concerts. Anyone who has appreciated the city's other wavy sculpture--the Navy-Marine Memorial completed in 1934 on the George Washington Memorial Parkway--will realize the fine potential of this idea.
Figurative sculptures were not shown yesterday except as tiny masses scattered on a small scale model. William Leonard, chairman of the Navy Memorial Foundation, said they could include a 30-foot-high bronze statue of a seaman, a 15-foot-high grouping of three mariners climbing shroud lines, or a 7-foot-high sculpture of a sailor. The ambitiousness of such a sculptural program is enough to give pause. Is there a sculptor alive who could do justice to the themes while avoiding the obvious pitfalls of overdone pathos and overblown scale?
This is one serious question about the new naval memorial. There are others. One concerns the acoustical properties of the setting, another the precise shape and size and depth of the sunken plaza, another the practicality and look of the wave elements inside the plaza. The biggest question, though, concerns the relationships between the sunken part of the plaza and the rest of Market Square, including the new buildings that eventually will form the northern border of the place. But the proposal is a promising new beginning. graphics/photo: Model of the proposed naval memorial; by Douglas Chevalier