Architect Friedrich St. Florian was a boy of 12 in the spring of 1945 when he experienced what would be his most vivid memory of World War II -- the triumphant arrival of American soldiers in his Austrian village.
"I was particularly impressed by the jeeps," he said. "There were mounted guns in front and the American flag in the back, and they came in, 12 or 15 of them, and I thought they were the most beautiful automobiles I had ever seen. Obviously, I was not very political."
Back then, St. Florian never dreamed he would grow up to design the National World War II Memorial, America's long-awaited tribute to the soldiers, sailors and Marines who fought that storied war. His vision -- a plaza ringed with pillars, dotted with fountains and full of bronze wreaths, gold stars and soaring eagles -- has been praised by some critics and panned by others. But St. Florian, now 71, said he is very pleased with the project that caps his career and has consumed the past eight years of his life.
"For the first time, from an airplane, I had this bird's-eye view of the memorial," he said, recalling a recent arrival from his home in Providence, R.I. "I had always envisioned in my thoughts what it would look like, but you can't really be sure until you see it. And I must say I was very moved."
St. Florian's design was unanimously chosen in 1997 from among 400 submissions. Head of his own architectural firm, he had previously overseen the design of the $450 million Providence Place project in historic downtown Providence, and he has won several national and international design competitions.
Although St. Florian has lived in the United States since 1961 and became a naturalized citizen in 1973, he brought his passport along to the Washington interviews "just in case," he said with a laugh, noting his heavy Austrian accent. It was a requirement that the designer of the World War II memorial be a U.S. citizen.
St. Florian proudly toured the memorial on a recent day, as workers put finishing touches on the landscaping. A dapper man in a bow tie and spectacles, he said he likes to think of future pleasant scenes unfolding there.
"I can envision Saturday concerts, with military bands," he said.
Early on, St. Florian decided that the memorial, located on the coveted site between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, should be fashioned as a walking plaza so as not to obstruct the view of the two icons. That had been a point of major concern to early critics of the project.
"I thought about the Roman forums, so to speak," he said. "And the more I had thought about it, it became clear to me that this was a very good method. Because I think the true legacy of World War II . . . is that we preserved once again our ideals and our principles, that we are a nation of free people living in a free country.
"And so the plaza is really sort of that place where democracy can unfold, where people can sit -- and they wouldn't even know they are celebrating democracy -- but they can argue and discuss and people will have different opinions."
Some of those differing opinions may have to do with the memorial itself. Most of the criticism was aired early on, by those who questioned the location and scale of the project.
Since its informal opening last month, supporters have applauded the majesty of the $175 million finished work, and the restoration of the long-dilapidated Rainbow Pool has received especially high marks. Detractors still describe the memorial as too cold and grand, but St. Florian obviously disagrees.
He points out the Freedom Wall, where 4,000 gold-plated stars represent the 400,000 military deaths in the war. He deliberately positioned it, he said, so that this would be the one place where the Lincoln Memorial was not visible from a distance. He wanted the visitor to think without distractions.
Often, he said, he is asked why he thinks it took so long to pay this tribute.
"The truth is, 50 years is about the appropriate distance for a world event -- you need the historic perspective," he said. "Vietnam and Korea were very different in that those were healing memorials. To some extent, Vietnam was an unwanted war -- the soldiers were not treated like the GIs at the end of World War II -- and we needed an instant memorial.
"But this should be triumphant," he said. "This was about one of the absolute finest moments in the history of the nation. We have to be careful that we do not glorify war, but this was a victory worth celebrating."