Art and architecture critic

One of the finalists in the design competition for the National World War I Memorial claims that the Great War is the “forgotten” war, but that’s certainly not for want of memorialization. Within less than a mile of Pershing Park, the Pennsylvania Avenue site selected for the new national memorial, are no less than three World War I memorials: the monuments to the 1st and 2nd Army divisions and the bandstand in West Potomac Park, which serves as the District’s local WWI memorial.

A century ago, memorialization was local, rooted in place, practiced on the town square and generally modest in scale. Like the memorials to the Civil War a half-century earlier, World War I memorials were spread out across the country. Occasionally, monuments honored groups or military units, but most often remembrance came in the form of a plinth, sometimes topped by a mass-produced “doughboy” figure, with a list of the local men who had been killed in battle.

Edwin Fountain, vice chairman of the World War I Centennial Commission, says that building a new national memorial is, in part, a way of bringing the First World War “into the modern practice of war commemoration.” That era began relatively recently, with the 1982 dedication of the Maya Lin-designed Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the first major national war memorial in Washington. Since then, memorial commissions have created major monuments to the Korean and Second World wars.

“It seemed important to complete the quartet of national memorials to the wars of the 20th century,” Fountain says, if only because not having one might “convey a message that World War I is considered less significant in our nation’s history.” The new memorial, he says, will have both a commemorative and an educational function, honoring the dead and reminding the living of their sacrifice.

On Monday, a design jury will announce one of the five finalists as the preferred team to pursue the new memorial. Given the enormous hurdles the commission ­faces, including a looming historic preservation battle over the existing 1981 design of Pershing Park by celebrated architect M. Paul Friedberg, whatever is ultimately built may be radically different from what is selected by the jury. Although the commission is likely to approve the jury’s choice, they don’t have to.

And it shouldn’t. All five of the designs obliterate the Friedberg park, rather than building on it, even though there is a distinct possibility that the park, which includes a landscape design by Oehme, van Sweden, could be placed on the National Register of Historic Places. A critical decision on whether that should happen could come this spring. But even more important: None of the proposals, selected in July from 360 entries, rises to a standard the commission should champion.

The WWI commission doesn’t want to delay its decision, in part because its congressional memorial mandate expires in June 2019, and because the members think their best hope for fundraising is during the current centennial celebrations of the war, which continue through November 2018. But unlike the World War II and Eisenhower memorials, both spurred by the urgency of an aging generation of veterans, the last American WWI veteran died in 2011. There is, therefore, time to get this right.

The Friedberg park design isn’t much loved today. Its street furniture looks a little 1980s shopping mall to contemporary eyes, and part of its charm — a sense of isolation from the city once you’re inside it — is created by a forbiddingly tall green berm that runs along its south face. But the principal culprit is the National Park Service, which has allowed the space to fall into shameful disrepair. The park’s central feature, a large pool that once served as a fountain in the summer and an ice skating rink in the winter, hasn’t been operational in years. Around it is cracked concrete, a shabby and abandoned gazebo, and sad-looking plantings that haven’t been properly maintained or replenished.

Charles Birnbaum, head of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy group, is working to preserve the Friedberg design and is thus frustrated that all of the memorial finalists call for its demolition. He considers the park an “early and unique example of the origins of post-modernist design in Washington.” Given the possibility of a historic designation, Birnbaum says, going forward with any of the five designs would be “putting the cart before the horse.”

Whether he’s right about the merits of the 1981 park — there is hardly consensus about the aesthetic merits of many of the public spaces­ designed in this period — Birnbaum is right to call for slowing the process down.

The face of today’s memorials

None of the five finalists clearly stand out, and none are inspiring. Something has clearly gone wrong not just in the design competition, but also more fundamentally in the language of memorialization prevalent today. It is, in a word, exhausted. The same cliches keep recurring, including the weird numerological connection between the number of dead and some architectural or landscape element; the confusion of virtues to be honored (honor, heroism, diversity, national pride, family, sacrifice); and a tendency to the extremes of clutter on the one hand and barrenness on the other.

The simplicity and somberness of Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial is supposed to have forever changed the face of memorialization in America. The original Pershing Park, with its 12-foot bronze statue of World War I Gen. John J. Pershing, opened at almost exactly the same time as Lin’s sunken wedge of dark stone walls, but it belonged to a passing era. The “great man” memorial type was exhausted, and Lin’s abstract, austere and reticent memorial typology would be the future.

Except that few if any designers have ever had the courage to create something as spare and simple as Lin’s design. They can never trust entirely to form and poetry, but must explain and elaborate and fill in the blankness. Today, the memorial function is confused with the museum function, and memorials aim not only to animate memory but also to dispel ignorance. Even the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, which built the Lin memorial, can’t leave well enough alone, dishonoring Lin’s legacy with plans for a new memorial visitors center, chock-full of video and digital distractions, to be placed on precious open ground just to the west of the memorial.

There is, however, a way forward, which in this case is to look back. As the WWI commission confronts the possibility that none of these designs can be built for preservation reasons, they also might reconsider the notion of what constitutes a memorial to a war that has been over for almost 100 years. The commission could, perhaps, use its mission and resources­ to build an audience for the nation’s rich tapestry of existing World War I memorials. They might strive to reanimate a sense of local memorialization, local stewardship and local memory, encouraging people to explore Washington’s several memorials to the war on foot, reconnecting them to an existing landscape of memorialization rather than trying to concentrate attention on a single, national piece of sculpture or landscape.

We use such words as memory and memorial and remembrance too casually. Of course, no one “remembers” the First World War anymore, at least not in the visceral, personal sense of those who lived through it. And there is no such thing as a collective memory of anything. Rather, there is rhetoric, history and mythology, which memorials attempt to fix in some kind of permanent form, beyond emendation or contradiction. At a local level, this effort to forge a historical sense of events is to some degree constrained by actual memory, by the memory of survivors, and by children and grandchildren. At the national level, it devolves into a meaningless language of heroism, valor and sacrifice, often in service to a larger and menacing nationalism.

Which is to say, we don’t need a new national WWI memorial any more than we needed a national Korean War memorial or a national WWII memorial. We have built only one national war memorial worth celebrating — the Vietnam Veterans Memorial — and it so terrified everyone in its implications that no one has ever dared build another one quite like it since.