Of the many issues raised by the bitter controversy surrounding the design of the Korean War Veterans Memorial, two stand out. One is of course the ultimate image, form and content of the memorial itself. The other is the shape of the surrounding spaces.
Both are consequential issues. Neither is simple. And they're closely related: The first is to the second as a pea is to a pod. That is, before one places a commemorative artwork in a given setting it stands to reason that one must know what that setting is or will be.
So far, however, the design process, by some mistake of timing or neglect, has been topsy-turvy. Congress okayed a prominent site for the memorial, tucked into a woodsy corner close by the Lincoln Memorial and Independence Avenue SW. The memorial's sponsors conducted a competition for a design, selected one, and then changed it all around. Understandably, reviewing agencies have been struggling with the result. The pea -- and a very big pea at that -- is being readied without the pod.
To its credit the National Capital Planning Commission, whose responsibility it is to ascertain and protect the form of Washington's federal parklands, has strongly urged the National Park Service, in whose administrative domain the parks exist, to devise an overall plan. Laudably, the Commission of Fine Arts has seconded the motion. Its chairman, J. Carter Brown, last month suggested that the two groups somehow tackle the problem in joint session.
The NCPC recommendation stressed the obvious need to accommodate visitors to both the Korean War and Franklin Roosevelt memorials (the latter already approved for a nearby location in West Potomac Park), suggesting a new system of pedestrian pathways, new plantings, roadways for the care and feeding of the inevitable buses, and convenience and service facilities more enticing than the rough "temporary" huts now in use.
Such initiatives, though rather late, should be encouraged. Indeed, their scope should be enlarged. At stake is the long-term character of a large swath of parkland extending along the south side of the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool to 17th Street, and another stretching in a southeasterly direction from the Lincoln through the Jefferson memorial grounds all the way to Hains Point.
This parkland is at present rather undeveloped. Much of it is used for active recreational purposes -- there's a golf course, a polo ground, soccer and softball fields and the like. These fit pleasantly into the predominant motif of grassy meadows and rows or informal clusters of trees. An appealing openness prevails -- visitors can see long distances and experience the nearness of the broad Potomac.
The goal of any long-term plan should be to preserve and improve these qualities while adjusting to the demands placed upon the land by the new memorials. This may sound sensible, seem easy, but it isn't. The Catch-22 is the type and size of the memorials. The FDR memorial, for instance, is a sequence of walled spaces summarizing the great man's life and going on for 800 feet. Ten million people per year will visit it, the Park Service estimates. The proposed Peace Garden aims to occupy all of Hains Point. And there's always a World War II memorial waiting in the wings.
Ironically, the Commemorative Works Act, adopted by Congress in 1986 with the good intention of preventing a proliferation of memorials in Washington's monumental core, has had the opposite effect of calling attention to the valued turf. The lack of consensus concerning what constitutes a proper memorial has exacerbated the problem. In seeking to adapt their works to the landscape, as Maya Lin did so successfully with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and to make visits to such places "interactive" experiences, as Lawrence Halprin did in his FDR design, architects of new memorials (and the juries who selected them) have thrown modesty and caution to the winds.
Which brings us back to the design for the Korean War Veterans Memorial. Actually, there are two designs, separate and distinct. As of now, one is official, one isn't. The former, backed by the Korean War Memorial Advisory Board, is by the Washington architecture firm of Cooper-Lecky Associates. The latter is the competition winner, submitted by a team of architects from Pennsylvania State University. The latter team has sued the former firm, and the sponsors, in federal court. The suit is pending. Meanwhile, confusion has cropped up predictably in the design review process, with different agencies neutralizing each other (and possibly the design, as well) by issuing contradictory criticisms, making everybody involved look a bit silly.
It isn't altogether clear how such an awful mess got to be. But it is obvious that the winners of the competition and the sponsors had opposing ideas about what was involved. The victors understandably thought they were selected for the merits of their actual design; the sponsors viewed the competition as a contest for a concept, a "start point" for a design. With that in mind, the KWMAB and Cooper-Lecky proceeded to redesign the memorial.
The issue of fairness aside, which is the better design? Easy to ask, not so easy to answer. Let's begin by describing the two. The original design is constructed around the idea of sequence, a time line from the beginning of the war to the end, to "release from war into the embrace of peace, and of reflection upon war," as its authors wrote.
Focused in single-point perspective upon an American flag in an open, semicircular plaza, the primary route is a slightly tilted pedestrian corridor defined on either side by a column of infantry soldiers to be sculpted in granite, an image familiar even to nonparticipants in the war from haunting photographs of it. (In terms of its imagery, the Korean War was a "newspaper" or a "magazine" war, in contrast to the "television" wars of Vietnam and the Persian Gulf.)
For all of its apparent simplicity, there is a lot going on in this design. There is, for instance, a great open field of low barberry shrubs on either side of the column of soldiers, meant to suggest the "hostile" landscape of war; there is a dense curved hedge of arbor vitae, intended to isolate the image; there's a grid of "torturously clipped" trees to remind visitors of war's inevitable violence; and, facing the plaza, there is a stone wall softly etched with episodes of the war.
The Cooper-Lecky design could hardly be more different in form and expression, although it does retain the column of soldiers. Rather than representing a passage through time, it shows this column as a "moment of time" -- the soldiers are clustered rather than strung out, they're engaged in some unspecified combat, and they're depicted in bronze with utmost realism in a variety of uniforms and carrying a variety of weapons and other combat gear. The column leads to a raised platform with an American flag and tributes to the United Nations allies in the war.
And there's more going on here, far more. The wall, enlarged from a "minor" to "major" element, is laid out as a great curving panorama of the war leading to a "chapel" or "grove of remembrance" defined by a formal, circular planting of clipped trees that shelter benches and a calm pool of water. A further, major change is in the character of the landscaping: In deference to the open quality of the surround, this memorial is not so rigidly defined as the original. There's lots more grass, and in place of dense plantings there are earth berms and clusters of trees.
There are strengths and weaknesses to both schemes, some shared. Both are too big. Neither really fits into the landscape as it now exists, and both create problems for any future treatment of the surrounding territory. Although both are essentially landscape designs, both rely to a risky extent upon the talents of a sculptor or sculptors to execute an incredibly demanding commission.
On balance I would have to conclude that the original design is the more promising of the two. But the Cooper-Lecky scheme is far superior in one important respect -- ease of plant and ground maintenance. Its other advantage -- relative openness to the surrounding park -- is more apparent than real, for as was pointed out in a recent review by the Commission of Fine Arts, its berms and walls and such are quite high and quite interruptive of the peaceful, flat character of the park. It's a compendium, encompassing a bit of Maya Lin, a bit of Lawrence Halprin and a bit of Frederick Hart.
Hart, of course, is the sculptor chosen to add the figurative statues to Lin's design in the most recent of Washington's memorial wars. I happen to think that his three bronze infantrymen, sensitively poised for action and astutely placed in an entry alcove by order of the Commission of Fine Arts, do add something to that memorial. But the principal point is, one shouldn't ask to fight that battle again. Excessive realism in commemorative war sculpture, as we have learned by experience, simply leads to endless nasty argument from those who are or who feel excluded. The result at the Korean War Memorial, as one critic pointed out, could have all the charm of "the infantry museum at Fort Benning."
This is not to say that the original is perfect. Far from it. Besides those already mentioned, its disadvantages include a rather stilted formality of design, an over-reliance upon plant forms to create symbolic meaning, and an overbearing sense of enclosure. But it is very wise in our pluralistic society to opt for a type of allegory, rather than realism, in so ambitious a sculptural ensemble. And it is critical to the success of a commemorative design that it have a compelling intensity of focus. This, above all, did the architects from Penn State supply.
The whole tale is a cautionary one. It suggests that open competitions may be a flawed procedure for such critical public projects. It points up the well-known Achilles' heel of design review -- that it is inherently reactive and cannot in itself assure great design. But of course the tale is not over. It may yet be that, in court or in concert, the two design teams can learn something from the pluses and minuses of each other's work.
Even more importantly, it may be that this particular argument has stimulated those whose job it is to look out for the future of these great federal parklands to reconsider their laid-back ways.