Today, eight years after the contentious search for a design was launched, the $174 million National World War II Memorial is being dedicated on the Mall. Despite all the critiques that I and many others voiced when the design was evolving from 1996 to 2000, the memorial delivers most of what its sponsors and designers promised:
* A grandly scaled, memorable space nobly astride the Mall's east-west axis, between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.
* Artfully composed, beautifully crafted elements of gray granite and bronze in a unified composition animated by the sight, sound and movement of water, people, vegetation and the occasional low-flying aircraft.
* Coherent architectural and sculptural motifs, coupled with inscribed text, that evoke unity, commitment, loyalty, sacrifice and triumph.
* A fair degree of transparency at the memorial plaza's perimeter, ensuring that the sense of openness of the Mall landscape and the Mall's east-west vistas will be reasonably preserved.
Regrettably, this last attribute is seriously compromised at a critical point by one significant element: the apse-like wall of 4,000 gold stars, each representing 100 of the war's 400,000 deaths. The wall of stars, intended to create a quasi-intimate place of contemplation at the center of the plaza's western edge, instead gets in the way.
Rising higher than the flanking, eye-level granite spillways, the wall of stars denies plaza visitors the opportunity to perceive the visually continuous swath of space linking the Lincoln Memorial and Reflecting Pool, the spillway, the Rainbow Pool and the Washington Monument. Lowering or tilting that wall of stars, perhaps incorporating it in the fountain, would have visually captured the Lincoln Memorial and Reflecting Pool and made them a powerful and integral part of the World War II Memorial's composition.
Despite this glitch, World War II veterans and their families will be moved, many profoundly, when they visit the long-overdue memorial this weekend.
But will their emotions be stirred by the intrinsic aesthetic and symbolic qualities of the memorial? Or will feelings spring primarily from the personal remembrances of wartime that any memorial can elicit, no matter its location, size and artistic merits, especially on Memorial Day weekend?
Will today's shared experiences and rituals of dedication, the opportunity to see and interact with other veterans, prove much more of an emotional catalyst and memory trigger than the memorial complex?
Addressing these questions in recent commentaries, Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher and Post art critic Blake Gopnik challenged Friedrich St. Florian's design. Both view the memorial as a missed opportunity.
Fisher lamented the memorial's lack of sufficient narrative content. He worried that younger visitors and future generations unfamiliar with World War II could visit the memorial and, although enjoying the experience of the plaza and Ray Kaskey's bronze sculptures, come away with little understanding of the war's origins, scope, consequences and meaning.
Gopnik found the memorial surprisingly mute, a "timid work of art, with so little eloquence that it demands subtitles," referring to the multitude of inscribed texts. He also criticized the memorial as "bland and backward-looking," as do many critics who wonder why a more innovative design was not pursued.
Fisher's and Gopnik's concerns are legitimate and echo those I expressed several times in the late 1990s. In July 2000, in the sixth article I wrote about the memorial, I acknowledged that battles over the site and design were done. The site wasn't negotiable, and the design was set.
Nevertheless, I discussed critical issues and questions that still lingered: the appropriateness of placing war memorials on the axis defined by the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument and Capitol, which are not war memorials but rather symbols of America's democratic and egalitarian foundations; the memorial's size, grandiosity and intrusiveness within the Mall's unobstructed landscape; and the memorial's imperial architectural language and spirit.
I still believe that a great but much simpler design -- restored Rainbow Pool plus plaza, with appropriate landscaping and much less structure -- could have worked wonderfully on this site.
"Future generations will see this memorial differently," I wrote in 2000. "World War II will recede into the distant past. The plaza will become a place that is more memorable than commemorative, a spatial landmark, a part of the Mall," where it will "acquire new meanings and host new activities."
My view hasn't changed.
Yet how can we ensure that, for future generations, the history of World War II does not recede so far that it becomes lost, the concern noted by Fisher and Gopnik? In another column (Nov. 27, 1999), I said that the nation's capital needs not just a memorial but also a museum in which the geopolitical and military history of the 20th century in general, and World War II in particular, is thoroughly presented.
Since writing those articles, I have visited London's remarkable Imperial War Museum and Canberra's equally remarkable Australian War Memorial and Museum. Each graphically tells not only the stories of their country's involvements in war, but also how the history of their country relates to the histories of other countries. Each visit reminded me that such a museum is needed in Washington and, like the National World War II Memorial being dedicated today, is long overdue.
Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.