DC Follies (The Los Angeles Times)

By Christopher Knight, The Los Angeles Times

The centerpiece of Friedrich St. Florian’s cluttered design for Washington’s proposed World War II Memorial is a sculpture titled “The Light of Freedom.” Planned to occupy the new fountain to be built in the center of a football-field-size plaza on the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial, the sculpture will be the unifying symbolic axis around which 56 commemorative pillars, two triumphal arches, a gold-star memorial wall, two waterfalls, four pools, eight monumental bronze eagles, 58 bronze wreaths, 24 bas-relief panels and other elements all revolve. When completed, sponsors say, the sculpture will “symbolize the triumph of freedom over totalitarianism and democracy over tyranny,” which are the true legacies for which the brutal war was fought.

What does “The Light of Freedom” sculpture look like? Who is the artist who has won this critically important commission?

Nobody knows. Indeed, nobody has a clue. The sculpture hasn’t been designed yet because an artist hasn’t even been chosen.

The National Capital Planning Commission meets Thursday to give final approval to the $100-million project’s “finished” design, even though its thematic centerpiece is a complete unknown. This startling fact is a plain example of what a sham the review process for the World War II Memorial has been these past five years.

You can be sure that at Thursday’s hearing there will be much bloviating by the memorial’s designer and Planning Commission staff about how it’s common in such projects to proceed in this manner. Who can blame them for being embarrassed and trying to cover their . . . tracks?

But in truth it’s not common at all. I’ve sat on numerous such art review panels and for many years have served on a standing committee for the Washington State Arts Commission. If a “finished” design were submitted for review without the main sculptural element claimed to be its thematic centerpiece–and without even an artist identified–the entire project would be politely turned away.

And perhaps not so politely, if design development had already been underway for four years, as the World War II Memorial has. The relationship between an architectural design and its central thematic sculpture is critical to a monument’s success–and no mean feat, either. A memorial’s largest, most important audience lives in the future. Speaking to people who were not alive when the event happened, but who have a critical need to know its core meaning, a memorial’s art must be extraordinarily eloquent.

For evidence, you don’t have to look any farther than the other end of the reflecting pool. Architect Henry Bacon was hired to design the Lincoln Memorial pavilion in February 1913, a half-century after the president’s assassination. Bacon wrote in his notes, “The most important object is the statue of Lincoln, which is placed in the center of the memorial, and by virtue of its imposing position in the place of honor, the gentleness, power and intelligence of the man, expressed as far as possible by the sculptor’s art, predominates.”

In December 1914, with a plan for a Parthenon-like temple centered on a contemplative statue of Lincoln firmly in Bacon’s mind, sculptor Daniel Chester French was hired. Great friends, the architect and the artist collaborated on about 50 memorials during their distinguished careers, and they worked together well. Bacon had even designed Chesterwood, French’s legendary studio in Massachusetts, where the Lincoln sculpture took shape.

“What I wanted to convey,” French wrote of his statue, “was the mental and physical strength of the great president and his confidence in his ability to carry the [Civil War] to a successful finish.” He presented the final model of his sculpture on Oct. 31, 1916. In three years and eight months, an integrated architectural and artistic plan was essentially complete, and one of the nation’s most powerful, critically acclaimed and popular memorials was assured. Unexpected problems did arise during construction–chiefly with the change from a glass skylight to one of translucent marble, which dramatically altered the play of light over Lincoln’s carved face. But the problem was solved with an innovative system of overhead floodlights and louvers, and the facial features sprung to life: Lincoln shifts through emotional registers of fear, resolve, sorrow and fortitude as a visitor moves around the room. By contrast, St. Florian won the commission for the World War II Memorial in 1996, and on Thursday he will present a “finished” model without “The Light of Freedom,” which defines the memorial’s very meaning. When the model was presented before July’s design review by the Commission of Fine Arts, the missing sculpture was represented by a piece of crumpled facial tissue.

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger, writing recently in the New Yorker, described St. Florian’s cemetery-like design as “an aesthetic disaster for Washington.” (Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff has his own glum assessment today.) Without a sculpture to review, art observers haven’t had anything to go on but hope.

And hope is in rather short supply, given the mess that’s been made of this project so far. As public awareness has grown about the imminent destruction of this historic spot on the Lincoln Memorial’s grounds, so important to the civil rights movement of the past 60 years, a rising chorus of opponents has emerged.

They range from individual citizens to the College Art Assn. and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. They include various civil rights leaders and many veterans. The editorial pages of the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today have all opposed the plan.

Former Sen. Bob Dole, a veteran and fund-raising chairman for the new memorial, is fond of asking: Where were these opponents five years ago when the site was being chosen? Easy answer, senator. We were in the dark, as a handful of Washington officials pulled a fast one. Obviously a huge public furor would immediately erupt if it were widely known to the American public that seven acres of the Lincoln Memorial’s grounds were going to be dug up and paved over. So the switch from the planned memorial’s originally agreed-upon (and appropriate) site in Constitution Gardens, near war memorials to Vietnam and Korea, was done carefully and quietly.

Commission of Fine Arts Chairman J. Carter Brown chose the new site at the Rainbow Pool and introduced the plan at his group’s meeting on Sept. 19, 1995. Despite various requirements for public notice and comment ranging from one to three months, this switcheroo was jammed through two federal commissions in 16 days flat. The following month, President Clinton was hustled down to the Rainbow Pool for the formal dedication and all-important photo-op.

As John G. Parsons of the National Park Service tactfully explained in 1997 testimony to Congress, “The public did not participate in that decision-making process.” Or, as memorial spokesman F. Haydn Williams bluntly bragged in a Talk magazine interview last year: “We got the site before they [the public] knew what hit them.”

Conveniently, two studies by Parsons’ Park Service detailing the protected National Historic Register status of the Rainbow Pool site were withheld by that agency for two years.

Two weeks ago the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation blasted the Park Service in a letter to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, decrying the way the public was effectively prevented from participation. Since the day the original agreement to put the memorial in Constitution Gardens was surreptitiously shelved, this was the first–and so far the only–time a federal agency involved in this fiasco stood up and did its public duty.

Thus the bitter irony in the theme of the unknown central sculpture. The missing “Light of Freedom,” emblem of the triumph of democracy over tyranny, is also emblematic of the highhanded shenanigans that have left democratic process in the dust. Tell you what, Sen. Dole. For every citizen in your home state of Kansas and my state of California who knows today what’s about to happen to the Lincoln Memorial, I’ll give you a dollar; for every Kansan and Californian who hasn’t a clue, you give me a dollar. I’ll be a very rich man.

On Thursday the National Capital Planning Commission should send this badly conceived proposal packing. But don’t count on it. Extraordinary courage by ordinary Americans is in awfully short supply today. Good thing it’s not 1940.

Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times