Anatomy of an eyesore: Monumental Error (The New Republic)

By Joseph Fishkin, The New Republic

Never has the phrase “Everyone’s a critic” been truer. It’s hard to find anyone without a damning word about the proposed National World War II Memorial-a mishmash of columns, eagles, wreaths, and giant triumphal arches slated for a prominent site on the National Mall, between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. “This just seems so uninspired,” says eminent Yale architecture scholar Vincent Scully. Richard Longstreth, vice president of the Society of Architectural Histori ans, deems it “among the very worst proposals ever made.” Even former New York Governor Hugh Carey, who as vice chairman of the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) pushed hard for the creation of a World War II memorial, admits that, when it comes to the design, “something’s missing.” When I asked Bob Dole, who’s leading the memorial’s $100 million fund-raising campaign, what he thought, he artfully demurred, saying, “Look, I’m not the architect. I’m just the money raiser.”

And yet come November, barring unforeseen developments, the World War II Memorial will break ground, and a design that hardly anyone seems to like will plop down smack in the middle of the Mall. How come? The memorial is a case study in design by procurement-what happens when a convoluted, ultracautious bureaucratic process creates public art. It’s also a cautionary example of what can happen when one man-in this case J. Carter Brown, chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts-wields enough power in that process to ram through his own grandiose vision at the expense of common sense.

The World War II Memorial was flawed practically from its inception. In 1993 Congress, riding the wave of nostalgia that later produced The Greatest Generation and Saving Private Ryan, authorized the memorial’s creation. But rather than form a new commission to oversee the effort-as Congress did in 19S0 for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and in 1986 for the Korean War Veterans Memorial-the authorization bill, written by Ohio Representative Marcy Kaptur, gave the job to the ABMC. The ABMC, which has been around since 1923, had experience building cemeteries for America’s war dead, and Kaptur hoped it would bring the project “proper federal oversight and accountability of funds:’ Unfortunately, it also brought its own (rather funereal) aesthetic sense and inexperience in creating public art.

The ABMC’S first task was to find a site. Working with the National Park Service, the National Capitol Planning Commission (NCPC) and the Commission of Fine Arts-all of which would have to approve the memorial’s location and design-the commission came up with six potential sites. In May1995, the ABMC settled on one: Constitution Gardens, an area on the Mall just east of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. But after the NCPC gave the ABMC’S preferred site its blessing, the Commission of Fine Arts-at the behest of Brown, its chairman since 1976-balked. Brown said it was “unacceptable” to “tuck [the memorial] away in the woods.”

Instead, Brown pushed a more radical idea, a site that wasn’t even among the six possibilities: the Rainbow Pool, just 125 feet south of Constitution Gardens-but, crucially, right on the Mall’s Central axis. Brown had taken forceful stands before, most famously in 1982, when some irate veterans and politicians wanted to stick a flag and a statue on top of the haunting, abstract Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Back then, Brown helped broker the crucial compromise – the statue and flag, but at a discreet distance – that preserved the memorial’s integrity. This time, though, Brown’s choice contradicted the architectural consensus, leading many to surmise that, after so many years of running the commission, Brown may simply have been entranced by the chance to alter the center of the Mall. “This becomes part of his own legacy,” says Roger Lewis, longtime architecture critic at The Washington Post. “This is something for him that he can point to … the Carter Brown contribution.”

The Commission of Fine Arts approved Brown’s Rainbow Pool site. “Brown.., makes the decisions,” said one Washington architect. “[He] is completely in charge of that commission.” Only a few hours later, the NCPC endorsed it as well. According to some of the memorial’s critics, this swift shift meant that crucial assessments of the memorial’s impact on the site-assessments of historical, cultural, and environmental impact conducted on the ABMC’S original six locations-were skipped. A group called the National Coalition to Save Our Mall is now threatening to sue the Commission of Fine Arts, the NCPC, and the Park Service for moving ahead without those assessments. The Advisory Council on Historial Preservation, an independent federal agency, also criticized the site-selection process when it voiced its opposition to the memorial proposal in a September 5 letter to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. At the time, though, Brown’s move attracted little comment. As F. Haydn Williams, head of the ABMC’s memorial effort, put it, “The site was approved before [the public] knew what hit them.”

With a location chosen, the ABMC went about selecting a design that satisfied its desire for a major memorial and a 70,000-square-foot-plus indoor museum and auditorium. But instead of holding the kind of open competition that might have yielded a visionary design-Like the contest that in 1981 led to the selection of then-unknown Yale architecture student Maya Lin’s design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial-the ABMC took a more conservative route. It brought in bureaucrats from the General Services Administration to run a closed competition in which big firms literally submitted their resumes first and their designs second. Although a protest eventually convinced the ABMC to briefly open up the competition, the commission retained veto power in case it didn’t like the competition jury’s choice. The jury got the message, picking a design by Rhode Island architect Friedrich St. Florian that the ABMC loved.

Alas, the merits of St. Florian’s design- which would dig out a football-field-size area around the Rainbow Pool and erect 50 thick pillars with their tops cutoff, plus huge slanted earthen berms to house the museum and theater-were lost on everyone but the ABMC. Senators Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina blasted “the apparent lack of foresight that accompanied the selection of the Rainbow Pool site” and “the inappropriateness of St. Florian’s design.” Many critics, including Deborah Dietsch, then editor of Architecture magazine, compared St. Florian’s design to the work of Nazi architect Albert Speer. Even Brown’s Commission of Fine Arts-along with the NCPC-rejected the design, with Brown himself conceding that it was “overbuilt.” The ABMC subsequently dropped its request for a museum on the site.

But rather than throwing out St. Florian’s design and starting over with a new competition, the ABMC, backed by Brown, decided to work with the architect to come up with some-thing more suitable-essentially, design by committee. After all, Brown argued the original contest had selected “the designer, not the design.” So St. Florian flew at the ABMC s expense to study the commission’s other projects, the Ameri can war cemeteries of Europe, for inspiration.

He came back in 1998 with a chastened, smaller plan: no berms, and little shields where the columns used to be. The only additions were two 41-foot-high triumphal arches. Although the new design satisfied Kerrey and some other critics, the Commission of Fine Arts wasn’t as impressed, and it asked St. Florian for another round of changes. In 1999 the architect scrapped the shields and brought back the pillars- smaller this time, with holes through the middle to avoid totally obliterating the views of the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. On July 19, the commission held a contentious seven-hour public hearing on the third and “final” design. While numerous critics pilloried the site, the design, and the entire process, the memorial’s supporters mostly argued that it was important to build something – some seven years after Congress approved the memorial-before any more World War II veterans died. Brown, for his part, attacked his detractors. “If triumphal arches and victory wreaths don’t give you the sense that we won the war,” he said, “I’m sorry:” His commission agreed, voting unanimously to approve the new design, a design whose “brilliance” Brown has since praised.

But that seal of approval doesn’t mean the tinkering is over. Even with preparations for the November ground-breaking under way, the Commission of Fine Arts is looking to add a major sculptural element (tentatively called the “flame of freedom”) in the middle of the pool, to give the design the central focus and meaning it now lacks. Outwardly confident, the commission is privately worried enough to have taken the unusual step of secretly meeting with at least five sculptors to discuss what to stick at the memorial’s center.

It’s doubtful, though, that any more changes, short of scrapping St. Florian’s entire design and starting over, will appease the memorial’s many critics. “We’ve been cut out, shut out,” says Judy Feldman, an American University art and architecture historian still working to halt the memorial’s construction. “It’s been treated just like another architecture approval project in Washington.” Sadly, that alone may be enough to ruin public art.