After a lengthy controversy, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall cleared its last major hurdle this week. The Commission of Fine Arts approved the addition to the memorial of a flagpole, a sculpture of three infantrymen and a "locator" of the names of American war dead. Excerpted here is the statement of the commission's decision made by its chairman, J. Carter Brown, director of the National Gallery of Art.
It is not lost on us as human beings or as citizens of the United States the degree to which there is a felt need in this country for healing, and we want to be part of that process. We certainly want to help honor and recognize all of those who served in Vietnam.
We have just come back from the site. I wanted my colleagues (on the Fine Arts Commission) from out of town to see it now that the grass is beginning to be there. One can visualize what the final effect will be. It is extraordinarily moving. I think the litany of those names (of American dead in Vietnam) is enough to bring enormous emotions to everyone's heart, emotions of pride and of honor in the sacrifices that have been made in serving this country.
When the commission was first asked by Congress to approve a site to be set aside for a Vietnam memorial, we looked at it very hard, because Constitution Gardens represents one of the great triumphs in Washington or in any capital city. That is sacred soil, right next to our dearest and greatest patriotic memorials. The memorial's simply being on the Mall at that site is an extraordinary statement of this country's pride in the people who are being memorialized there. We want our descendants to have the same kind of pride in what was achieved there that we can have about our forebears who built the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.
The question comes down to the elements -- and their location -- that have been now brought to us to add to the design as approved. We felt the addition is possible in such a way as to be approved by this commission. This was not an easy decision. It would have been far easier to say that, since the addition of anything would change the original competition and the results that came from it, we will disapprove them without looking at a single submission. We would have been great heroes in some quarters for doing that.
One of the areas that we have been asked to comment on for the first time today is the question of a locator for names. The whole concept of the memorial, of listing the names in the order in which they fell, has one inherent practical problem: the grieving who want to track down a specific name may not be able to find it quickly. A locator becomes essential. We question whether one directory is enough, and we question the design of a sheet metal tube that, in our view, does not share the dignity, the sense of permanence that a memorial should have. Furthermore, we question the (proposed) location, which is so much on axis with the arm of the memorial that it becomes almost a little exclamation point at the end; it becomes somehow integrated into the design of the memorial. I am sure it was not intended that one should think of it as part of the design expression of the memorial. So we urge a different location -- one, however, in that vicinity so that it will be accessible to the handicapped.
One relishes the degree in which this memorial has a free-form openness that allows people to come upon it from various directions. But over time it will begin to be perceived as having a front door -- presumably from the side of the great memorial nearest to it, the Lincoln Memorial. People will flow down those steps, they will go over to the Vietnam Memorial, and they will probably come to it from tourmobiles in that direction.
We come to the other two elements, the flagpole and the sculpture. The flagpole is a wonderful thing to add. It is very fitting that this memorial, in particular, have it. I believe it is also a dangerous precedent, and this commission would look very hard at the proliferation of flagpoles on the Mall. There is a ring of them around the Washington Monument. That is the focus for the whole Mall composition. There is a very beautiful monument to the signers of the Declaration, and to put a flagpole there would be, in our view, totally inappropriate. But a flagpole, I think, is appropriate here if we can find the right location for it. The general height of 50 feet seems good. The design of the base with an inscription is totally appropriate.
The sculpture, again, we approve in principle. We like the maquette (model) as far as we can tell, as far as it goes, because we are experienced enough in sculpture to know that at final scale there are subtle changes that happen, and we naturally will have to reserve the right of final approval until we see the final maquette. But it strikes a chord of recognition in those who care most deeply about their experience (in Vietnam), and we find it acceptable.
The location of it and the flagpole and the locator are problems with the submission in its present form. If the sculpture is allowed to shiver naked out there in the field, to be an episodic element that is not integrated, that somehow relates to a flagpole which is so far away and whose height and silhouette will be cut off as one approaches the existing memorial, cut off at the knees as it were, they will not combine to have the critical mass and impact that those elements deserve.
Therefore, our recommendation would be that these three elements, which threaten to be episodic and disjointed, be brought together to help enhance the entrance experience to the memorial, be put up front so that they are in the foreground and soothat people will have a chance to recognize them and derive all the benefits from them as they enter into the precinct. This not only serves the elements as they have been proposed, but it also accomplishes a stated goal of the most recent sculpture commission, which was to honor and protect the integrity of the original design.