The Korean War, fought from 1950 to 1953, was a conflict that ended ambiguously with substantial compromise and lingering animosities.
Four decades later, as if symbolizing the Korean War's less-than-satisfactory resolution, the design of the Korean War Veterans Memorial seems to be reaching a similar conclusion after months of battle between the original designers and those ultimately responsible for executing the work.
The contemporary conflict revolves around issues of authorship, aesthetics, authority and control.
The original and widely publicized memorial design, selected from more than 500 submissions to a national design competition, is no longer the design being implemented, even though it was unveiled ceremoniously at the White House by President Bush and has been used extensively in memorial fund-raising efforts.
The designers who won the competition, Burns Lucas, Leon, Lucas, Architects, and Eliza Pennypacker Oberholtzer, assert that their design concept has been severely compromised, that most of the essential compositional and narrative ideas have been lost and that the architectural firm -- Cooper-Lecky Architects -- which received the prime design contract intentionally excluded them from participating in refining and developing the design.
As of now, the design competition winners are no longer involved at all. Instead, through legal and other means, they are seeking to temporarily stop the process, hoping to regain some measure of control over the design, to "turn back the clock to June 1990" when relations fell apart.
Cooper-Lecky, holding contractual responsibility for the project, suggests that the design chosen by the competition jury could never have been implemented. According to architect Kent Cooper, the design by Burns Lucas, Leon, Lucas -- a group known as BL3 -- was flawed in its site plan, did not meet client expectations and would not have been approved by the various federal commissions and agencies with jurisdiction over the project.
Cooper argues that an essential element of BL3's design -- 38 soldier-statues along a linear walk leading from an entry plaza to a flag plaza -- has been maintained but acknowledges that major changes have been made in the design's overall form and narrative content.
Further, Cooper claims that BL3 had been "unreasonable" and "stubborn," refusing to accept changes to their competition-winning design to respond to requirements or suggestions put forth by those overseeing the project -- the Korean War Veterans Memorial Advisory Board, the American Battle Monuments Commission, the National Capital Memorial Commission, the National Park Service and the Commission of Fine Arts.
John Lucas of BL3 has stated that his team was willing and ready to make reasonable revisions in its design, although at the same time BL3 felt compelled to defend the design's fundamental qualities and composition. Moreover, the winning design, Lucas noted, was approved in the initial round of reviews by several federal commissions, including the Commission of Fine Arts, the Battle Monuments and Capital Memorial commissions and the National Capital Planning Commission.
Who is right? Have contractual or ethical standards been breached? Each party points a finger at the opposing party while respectively claiming the high moral ground.
Some things seem clear, in particular the problems endemic to the competition and implementation process.
The open design competition was conducted in the spring of 1989 pursuant to legislation signed by President Reagan in 1986 authorizing a commemorative work on federal land in the District.
The specific site for the memorial -- south of the Reflecting Pool and directly opposite the Vietnam Veterans Memorial -- was chosen in 1988.
A jury made up of members of the Korean War Veterans Memorial Advisory Board, all veterans, professional designers and artists selected the first-place project, noting that it best fulfilled the competition's stated guidelines while "radiating a message that is at once inspirational in content and timeless in meaning."
However, under the terms of the design competition, there was no obligation to hire the winning designers, who received a $20,000 prize, to actually design and carry out construction of the memorial.
Instead, the memorial sponsors subsequently solicited and considered qualifications of several architects, finally selecting Cooper-Lecky. Cooper-Lecky had been project architect for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial designed by Maya Lin, also the subject of an open, national design competition.
Thus, under the prime design contract, the competition winners were hired only as "design consultants" to the official project architect.
This can be a workable arrangement if there is substantial agreement about and commitment to the jury's design choice. But if the two design firms are unable to reach consensus and present a common front, such an arrangement is doomed to controversy, no matter how "right" each party feels.
Then there is the problem of too many cooks in the kitchen. It's hard enough having two different architects with differing ideas. Adding the opinions and design suggestions of numerous government commissions and official advisers can only complicate the task.
More important, having multiple authors is likely to dilute any especially bold or unconventional design concept as each overseer contributes his share to the scheme, rounding off corners, toning down visual rhetoric, demanding practicality, or, as occurred here, interjecting alternative aesthetic judgments.
In the end, aesthetic acceptability appears to have been the primary undoing of BL3's winning scheme. Many people in command didn't like it. Some thought it didn't really fit or use its site, despite subtle axial links to surrounding monuments on the Mall. Paraphrasing reviewers, Cooper said that it "could be anywhere," that it was too "self-contained," too detached from the more romantic, picturesquely configured landscape patterns around it.
Looking for a more informal, "Olmsteadian" garden rather than a geometrically formal, sequestered beaux-arts precinct, reviewers wanted the memorial to become an integral, visually continuous part of the Mall space.
Accordingly, the shape of the current design is radically different from the original. It is more casually imprinted on the landscape, more curvilinear, more representational and less metaphoric, and, Lucas insists, significantly altered in meaning. But it seems to be what the various commissions were prepared to approve.
In effect, the powers that be not only have rejected the winning design, they also have questioned by implication the judgment of the competition jury and the competition design criteria. Apparently this is perfectly within their rights, even if it seems unfair.
Nevertheless, it is easy to understand why BL3 feels slighted, misled, even cheated. They believed in their design, the product of much thought and effort, and believed it was destined to be built.
Yet it is also easy to understand why those shepherding the project to realization likewise feel unjustly accused. They are adhering to a process, to contracts and obligations, to the will of officialdom, playing by Washington rules and standards. They, too, believe in their design, believe it to be an improvement over the original.
What you have here is fundamentally a difference of opinion, differences in approach and principles. Which is probably how President Harry Truman and Gen. Douglas MacArthur felt about Korea a long time ago.
Roger K. Lewis is an architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.