Ambush on the Mall (The Washington Post)

By Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

What is remarkable about public architecture in Washington is not that so much of it is so bad but that any of it is any good. The processes by which sites are chosen and designs approved are so riddled with politics, secrecy, conflicts of interest and plain old-fashioned greed that little room is left for architectural competence, much less excellence. Yet somehow we managed to build the Washington Monument and the Grant Memorial and the National Archives and the Capitol: structures that, in their varying, distinctive and quite incomparable ways, speak directly to the American spirit.These and a few others are the glorious exceptions to the sorry rule, which is a bizarre mixture of mediocrity and pomposity: the Madison Memorial Library of Congress Annex, the numbing array of immense boxes spreading out from the L’Enfant Plaza and Federal Center Metro stations, the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building, the State Department. Et cetera. They remind us all too vividly that architecture by committee is a recipe for aesthetic calamity.

Now, unless some last-minute Lochinvar comes riding to the rescue, the nation’s capital is about to be cursed with more of the same: the National World War II Memorial, groundbreaking for which is scheduled to take place in November at the site on the Mall now filled by the Rainbow Pool. This subject was discussed in this space last week, but a strong response from readers and a further examination of the case make clear that there is more to be said.

The history of the World War II Memorial is puzzling, albeit consistent with that of many major Washington monuments. One would think, given the momentous place the Second World War occupies in the history of this nation and the world, that a suitable monument would have been erected here years ago. More than 400,000 Americans lost their lives in that conflict and nearly 700,000 were wounded, grim statistics indeed. An appropriate commemoration of these sacrifices should have been a high priority in this city as soon as the war ended in the summer of 1945, yet it has inched along every bit as slowly, tediously and contentiously as did the monuments to Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln.

Not until the 1990s did discussion of a World War II commemoration get serious. Once it did, it took a turn consistent with the politics of public architecture in Washington: It went underground. Though various commissions held many meetings and heard much testimony, announcements of these were published mostly in the Federal Register, a publication of impeccable reputation and exceedingly limited circulation. The result was that many people who wanted to speak out on plans for the memorial were unaware of opportunities to do so. Deliberations by the National Capital Memorial Commission, the National Capital Planning Commission, the Commission of Fine Arts were held, to all intents and purposes, in camera.

That is the way business gets done in Washington when powerful people decide that the time has come for them to have their way. It is a mystery that certain of these people are bound and determined to put the World War II Memorial on the Rainbow Pool site, smack in the middle of the Mall between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, but there is no mystery about the strategy they have followed in pursuit of that objective: Tell the public as little as possible and move forward with all dispatch.

The Rainbow Pool site was approved by the National Capital Planning Commission nearly five years ago in what seems to have been the equivalent of a kangaroo court; soon thereafter the site was dedicated by President Clinton, whose determination to ram through the Mall location is yet another mystery. Since then all the bigwigs behind the project have proceeded on the assumption that the deal is done, that further objections are after the fact. Critics of the site, according to Bob Dole, former senator and World War II veteran, are a “little late,” and according to F. Haydn Williams of the Battle Monuments Commission: “The site was approved before they [the public] knew what hit them. Then they came out of the woodwork.”

Even in official Washington, it’s hard to imagine a more blatant expression of contempt for views that diverge from the insider consensus. Never mind that the commissions charged with reviewing and approving this project have operated in stealth; never mind that nothing, not even a project boosted by the likes of Dole and Williams and J. Carter Brown, is over until it’s over. No, we are to believe that the blame for this “late” criticism of the war memorial rests entirely with its critics, who were asleep in “the woodwork,” and that they have now forfeited their right to speak out on what is–lest you happen to have forgotten–a matter of public rather than private interest.

This is simply untrue. People– “architects, planners, historians, World War II veterans and others,” in one critic’s words–have been speaking out against the Rainbow Pool site for years; the commissions simply have refused to listen. No doubt that is what the Commission of Fine Arts intends to do when it holds its final hearing on the memorial on July 20, and what the National Capital Planning Commission intends to do on Aug. 3. What it says here, though, is that if you have doubts about the Rainbow Pool site or any other aspect of the memorial, show up and let yourself be heard. Last time I looked, it was still a free country.