Mumbling Monuments (Commentary)

By Michael J. Lewis, Commentary
February 2001 (Vol. 111, No. 2) 

For the building of great and lasting monuments, wealth alone is insufficient; nor is it even necessary. Even the wealthiest societies, if they are missing the intangible quality of cultural confidence, will not build symbols for the distant future. Egyptian pyramids, Roman triumphal arches, medieval cathedrals were not the products of insecure civilizations. In stone one builds exclamation points, not question marks.All the more remarkable, then, that the United States, less convinced of its inherent goodness and worth than ever before, should have recently embarked on the most spirited monument-building campaign in nearly a hundred years. Three ambitious monuments have been designed for the Mall in Washington, D.C.: the Franklin D. Roosevelt and Korean War Memorials, both now completed, and a controversial World War II Memorial on which construction is to begin in the spring. Taken as a whole, and together with the Vietnam Memorial (1981-82), these commemorative structures form a sweeping summary of the national experience in the 20th century. But are they a sign of reviving cultural confidence or, rather, a sign of change in the sorts of things we are confident about?

Ask American to describe a traditional civic monument and chances are he will draw a white marble temple with classical columns and carved capitals, hoisted on a podium and containing a solemn statue within. This is the architecture of neoclassicism, which, as traditions go, is not so old. In fact, it is scarcely older than the Constitution itself, a document that sprang from the same source of Enlightenment idealism and respect for Greek and Roman antiquity. As a visual style, neoclassicism flourished in the United States from the 18th until the early 20th century, a span that neatly coincides with the laying out and building of the city of Washington itself. Fittingly, that city’s array of domes, temples, and obelisks forms the greatest ensemble of neoclassical monuments in the world.

In his 1791 plan for the capital, Pierre Charles L’Enfant envisioned the Mall as its principal public space, a two-mile-long Roman forum to be enriched over time with sculpture and monuments. In the loftiest classical terms, he conceived two intersecting axes, each of them anchored in a major public building, with the east-west axis beginning at the Capitol and the shorter north-south axis at the White House.

Just as L’Enfant intended, the other ends of these expansive vistas were eventually marked by monuments: the Lincoln Memorial (1914-17) for the long axis and the Jefferson memorial (1938-43) for the shorter one. At the intersection of the two axes rises the Washington Monument (1833-85), sufficiently heroic in scale to control the vast sweep of space. All three structures, although built by different generations, show the same simplified geometry and forceful visual clarity, bending the devices of Imperial Rome to the demands of popular democratic imagery.

Before this ensemble could be completed, however, the neoclassical tradition was already ailing. John Russell Pope’s design for the Jefferson Memorial, the most recent addition, was met with fierce antagonism by modernist architects and critics. Their objections were both technical and symbolic: Frank Lloyd Wright condemned the use of stone in an age of steel and concrete, Eero Saarinen lam basted the idea of copying the Roman Pantheon Although Pope’s monument was built, the criticism accomplished its work. No unabashedly classical monument of any significance has been built since in Washington or anywhere else in the country.

What Pope’s critics wanted, they said, was a monumentality that was also modern: up-to-date in materials and expression, free of historical reference, frankly acknowledging the transformed nature of life in the 20th century. An age that had conquered the atom – so went the argument-could not be captured within tired conventions nor must architecture be allowed to present itself in quotation marks. But whether any unqualified masterpieces emerged from this heady rhetoric is another question: the soaring arch in St. Louis (1961-65), designed by Eero Sarinen to symbolize the city’s historic role as a gateway to the West, may have come the closest.

The truth is that the temperament of modernism was antimonumental. Modern architecture, in particular, rose on a doctrine of functionalism and structural honesty, and its idealism was subsumed in crusades for tangible goals like mass housing and urban renewal. When it looked upon society, it tended to see ills that needed to be remedied more than achievements that cried out to be commemorated.

For this reason, the winning of World War II the biggest national undertaking since the Civil War (and one which, in contrast to that earlier conflict, enjoyed an unprecedented degree of national consensus) was marked by no great national building. This is not to say that public monuments vanished entirely, for this period did witness a burgeoning of statuary and the like in municipal plazas, largely in response to local ordinances requiring the one percent of a civic building’s cost be spent on a work of public art. But these were invariable the work of sculptors, not architects, and the results were hardly monumental: indeed, they were as far from heroic neoclassicism as can be imagined. Apart from the oversized Pop objects done by Claes Oldenburg, most fell into the turd-on-a-stick category.

If Moderrnism had discredited the form of the I traditional monument, the Vietnam war helped discredit the content. The war confirmed for many that there was little about America- or “Amerika”- that was worth celebrating. To every imaginable claim of virtue, a seemingly irrefutable qualifier could be raised. Yes, we had liberty- but we had also had slavery. Yes, we had equality – but we had also had Jim Crow. And yes, there was Normandy and the liberation of Europe-but there had also been Hiroshima. The increasing prevalence of this habit of mind-by now, several generations have been brought up to think this way instinctively-made the very idea of a celebratory national consensus seem laughable, let alone the idea of building monuments to express it.

It is therefore profoundly ironic that the Vietnam war should have helped rehabilitate the idea of the national monument-or, more accurately, the national memorial. But so it happened. In 1979, a privately funded initiative was established for such a memorial on the Mall, and two years later it sponsored an architectural competition, open to all American citizens. The brief for the competition was laconic, requiring only that the structure list the names of the 58,000 dead and missing American soldiers, be “reflective and contemplative in character,” and contain no explicit political content. As is well known, the competition was won by Maya Lin, then a twenty-one-year-old architecture student at Yale.

Lin’s design was a minimalist essay of stupendous restraint. It called for nothing more than a shaped retaining wall, partially submerged into the earth, its arms splayed at a 125-degree angle to point to the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. This gesture bound it to the axial geometry of the Mall, but in every other respect it departed from the Mall’s neoclassical language. Rather than a heroic volume, it encased a void; rather than white marble, it was constructed of polished black granite; rather than making a comforting reference to the continuity of Western art and culture, its form was altogether unfamiliar, resembling, if anything, the earth barrows and mounds of prehistoric architecture. Its diminishing arms, disappearing at last into the ground at either end, struck an ineffably tragic note. This was the war itself, overwhelming and incomprehensible.

These qualities, indeed, were precisely what unleashed a fury among veterans’ groups when Lin’s design was unveiled. To assuage them, a piece of traditional sculpture was hastily added over Lin’s strenuous protests. This was a vignette of three weary GI’s slogging their way home from patrol. Designed by the late Frederick Hart, an artist of talent, the group displayed a theatrical realism that could not have been more alien to Lin’s abstract minimalism. Placed far enough away from the memorial so as not to detract from it, the statues often serve as a rallying point for veterans fortifying themselves before their cathartic encounter with the wall.

But the wall itself, to the surprise of nearly everyone, was an instant success, its lapidary dignity sweeping away all objections. The mirrored granite surface, permitting the visitor’s reflection to shimmer over the incised roster of the dead, had a force that no architectural rendering or model could have predicted. It also turned out to have been a stroke of genuine inspiration to arrange the names in order of their death rather than alphabetically, thus establishing a sixteen-year timeline of the war, and also to begin and end the cycle at the interior angle of the V, thus making a kind of closed cycle of what would otherwise have been an uninflected line.

Lately, Lin herself has recounted the story of the memorial in a smartly presented portfolio of her various projects and her thoughts on them.* But anyone looking for a personal narrative will be disappointed. Writing in the crypto-guru voice of the architectural studio (“I imagined taking a knife and cutting into the earth”), Lin offers a mythic rather than journalistic account of the origin of her design. To be sure, minimalism does not lend itself to literary explication, but one has the feeling that an interesting story remains here untold.

As it happens, Lin’s design was conceived in the course of an undergraduate seminar. Rather than emerging fully developed, as she implies, it was exposed during its intermediate and final presentations to the customary round of comments by visiting critics, and it changed considerably in the process. Or so I am told by one of these critics, the architect Carl Pucci, and by Lin’s seminar professor, E Andrus Burr. This is not to denigrate Lin’s considerable achievement but merely to note that, like most artists, she is reluctant to shed light on rejected drafts. Nor is she any more informative about the tense aftermath of her victory, when it looked for a time as if the project might be derailed by opposition, glossing over the interlude as “a few weeks of tense and hostile negotiations.”

From the point of view of her career, at any rate, one gathers that the Vietnam Memorial has been a tough act to follow. After graduating from Yale’s school of architecture, Lin has enjoyed modest success as a designer of public monuments mining the same minimalist vein, like the Civil Rights Memorial in Atlanta. Still, if one is to be remembered as a one-hit wonder, it might as well be for the most popular monument in our nation’s capital.

But Lin also achieved something else, which was to spark the unprecedented monument-building mood of the past decade.

The Vietnam Memorial offered several lessons, I architectural and political. The motif of the retaining wall, for starters, instantly replaced the conventional design of granite-stela-and-bronze-plaque, and was swiftly replicated in countless local Vietnam memorials across the United States. Their ubiquity demonstrated the persistence of a deep and unstilled appetite for large civic gestures. But they also testified to a considerable degree of ambivalence concerning the war itself. Wherever these monuments have been proposed, they have been built without opposition and generally very quickly, unhappily rendered in cinderblock and cheap metal. Most will look shabby in short order.

In Washington, though, the consequences have been more dramatic. A logjam that had delayed the Roosevelt Memorial – authorized in 1959, designed in 1974-was broken at last; the site opened in 1997. Memorials for the Korean war and World War II were authorized by Congress in 1988 and 1993, respectively, and the former opened in 1995. The three differ in instructive ways.

First, the Korean War Memorial. With the scrupulous sense of fairness that has come to distinguish such proceedings, a site was chosen that precisely matched the Vietnam Memorial, balancing it across the reflecting pool at the western end of the Mall. The monument itself is the work of the sculptor Frank Gaylord, who clearly tried to achieve Maya Lin’s goal with Frederick Hart’s means. As with Hart’s three Vietnam servicemen, Gaylord’s subject is a platoon on patrol, in this case 19 bronze soldiers trudging heavily uphill, burdened by heavy ponchos that evoke the Korean winter. Visitors are meant to pass among them, gazing into their impassive faces and sharing empathetically in their experience.

The notion of a sculptural group through which the visitor moves is hardly novel; perhaps the mostfamous example is Rodin’s celebrated Burghers of Calais (1886). Unfortunately the comparison is not flattering to Gaylord’s tableau, whose theatrical and cloying effect is further diminished by the mirrored surface toward which the soldiers appear to move. This is the Wall of Faces, upon which are etched the countenances of military personnel and behind-the-lines support troops, taken from wartime photographs. But the nineteen bronze soldiers are also reflected in the wall, creating an unpleasant visual clutter in which photographs are turned into flat sculpture and plastic sculptures are turned into shining images. If Lin’s mute wall invites rumination, this one suggests flickering screens of another kind entirely.

Image overload also spoils the Roosevelt Memorial, which makes the Korean War Memorial seem as terse as a haiku by contrast. Designed by Lawrence Halprin, a landscape architect, in collaboration with a group of sculptors, the rambling structure is as much landscape as it is a building. A sequence of four outdoor rooms represents Roosevelt’s four terms, each lavishly documented by freestanding statues, relief sculpture, and carved inscriptions. Even FDR’s dog, Fala, is pantingly immortalized in bronze.

Some of the individual works are not bad in themselves. In George Segal’s Fireside Chat, for example, a lanky man leans forward on a chair as he listens intently to one of Roosevelt’s radio addresses; this is the sort of expressive pose that is Segal’s strength (otherwise, his figures tend in general to be faceless ciphers). But cumulatively the barrage of imagery at different scales and in different genres is disorienting. As with the Korean War Memorial, the visual sources here are photographic, and they are made lesser by being translated into bronze. Where traditional memorials monumentalize their subjects by suppressing the incidental detail in order to achieve an abstracted essence, here the tone is furiously anecdotal, as in book illustration. It may be that the intended effect was of a series of devotional chapels, but the result is closer to Madame Tussaud’s wax museum.

The FDR monument is also scrupulous in its political correctness. Advocacy groups for the handicapped had protested the fact that, although a polio victim, he would be depicted without a clearly visible wheelchair; that FDR himself had assiduously suppressed images of his incapacitation in his lifetime evidently counted for nothing. (Yielding to the threat of demonstrations that might mar the monument’s dedication, President Clinton duly announced that a wheelchair-bound Roosevelt would be added to the site.) At the same time, antismoking groups succeeded in eliminating Roosevelt’s one visual trademark: the cigarette holder perpetually clenched in his teeth, emphasizing the outthrust jaw that contributed so much to the impression of jaunty optimism. Thus was completed the transformation of a vigorous and rakish cavalier into a differently-abled and rather prim nonsmoker. Finally, in deference to animal-rights groups, also suppressed was a trademark of Eleanor Roosevelt: namely, her fox stole.

All this fussing with cigarette holders and furs suggests that the visual language of allegory is in a sorry state. (Nor is the fundamental dishonesty restricted to the incidentals of imagery; in an excessively wordy memorial, no room was found for one of Roosevelt’s most famous statements: “December 7, 1941- a date that will live in infamy.”) It may be that, for complicated reasons, a visual culture like ours is ill at ease with what the proper reading of allegory requires, which is at bottom a literary imagination. But whatever the cause, the inability to think allegorically helps explain why Frederick Hart was not allowed to portray the American military experience in Vietnam by means of a single American soldier but had to depict three men of three distinct races – and why a women’s memorial was added shortly thereafter. The fear of leaving someone or something out is hostile to the allegorical impulse, which seeks not to itemize but to generalize, and to speak not specific truths but great truths. Without allegory, however, it is difficult to make a memorial truly monumental.

In some cases, it must be said, no allegory at all would have been preferable to the simplistic and hackneyed symbolism with which we are confronted. Worst in this respect is the Korean War Memorial, which was originally intended to depict not nineteen but 38 soldiers-the reference being to the 38th parallel along which the war pivoted. This number being too unwieldy, it was arbitrarily halved, with the explanation that it would be doubled again by the reflecting mirror. Here is allegory utterly inverted: the use of important things- human beings-to represent an accidental feature of geography.

What, then, of the World War II Memorial, W the most traditional of the monuments and the only one with neoclassical aspirations? Perhaps expectedly, and perhaps also on account of its prominent location on the main axis of the Mall, this project has become deeply controversial. When it was first proposed in 1987, it was clear that a more important site was called for than the one chosen for the Vietnam Memorial. With a minimum of public consultation, a spot was designated at the east end of the reflecting pool, roughly midway between the Lincoln and Washington -monuments. A competition was held in 1996, resuIting in the selection of Friedrich St. Florian, an Austrian-born architect who teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.

It is easy to see how St. Florian won. The architectural problem posed by the competition brief was to place a monument directly athwart a processional path in such a way as not to interrupt that path either visually or spatially. For such a problem, history offers a number of prototypical solutions; the most important is Bernini’s vast colonnade before St. Peter’s in Rome, which serves as a plaza without blocking the processional axis and which permits gathering as well as passage. St. Florian’s solution was similar. Instead of interrupting the open space of the Mall, he extended that space to the north and south by means of semicircular colonnades. All the architectural elements are pushed to either side of the sight line, leaving nothing on axis but three stepped terraces and a fountain.

St. Florian turned this bifurcated site to advantage, using each semicircle to represent one of the war’s two major theaters. Each consists of an arc of granite stelae, seventeen feet in height, with each: stela bearing a bronze wreath alternately depicting oak (strength) and wheat (abundance). There are 56 stelae in all, representing the number of American states and territories that participated in the fighting, and the focus of each semicircle is a square baldachin consisting of four arches and four bronze eagles carrying a laurel wreath.

St. Florian’s architecture seeks to restore Washington’s classical tradition at the moment before it flickered out in the 1930’s. His details are derived -from the severe stripped classicism of Paul Cret, the French emigre who built America’s finest federal architecture in the 1920’s and 1930’s. To judge from the published renderings, St. Florian’s design shows a commendable seriousness about the use of stone, and there is none of the two-dimensional but-out qulaity of the postmodern classicism of recent decades. But it si not Bernini, either. A certain schematic blockiness afflicts the architectural elements, which do not have the plastic richness that comes from long experience in the sculptural treatment of stone; nor could that be expected in a late-blooming classicist like St. Florian whose previous experience has been in architectural modernism.

But it is not for its architecture that this monument has been the subject of a national controversy. Rather, the National Coalition to Save Our Mall, supported by editorials in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal , among others, is exercised over the site. It has brought a lawsuit seeking an injunction to halt the project before construction begins this spring.

The coalition is a cocktail of convenience of the Right and the Left. As it happens, there is a strong case to be made for leaving the Mall as it is, and a certain reticence about hasty monument-making is also fully justified in light of such less than satisfying works as the Korean War Memorial. But most of the voices raised against the World War II Memorial are not of this conservative ilk. Rather, they are hostile to the very notion of celebrating on the Mall the kind of idealized nationalist sentiment that the monument seems to imply. This is ref flect ed in the scurrilous comparisons of St. Florian’s design to the Nazi architecture of Albert Speer. (As it happens, Speer himself plagiarized heavily from Paul Cret’s classicism, which was widely studied in Germany during the 1930’s.)

While the results of the lawsuit have yet to be determined, and the fate of the World War II Memorial thus remains undecided, what is clear is that the recent consensus in favor of national monuments and memorials is an exceedingly fragile one. The Left remains opposed to works that evoke traditional American attitudes, and the Right to avant-garde experimentation. In this standoff, both factions have been able to support monuments honoring Americans who can somehow be depicted as the victims of war; but victimhood is a slim basis on which to rebuild a monumental tradition. The dispute over the facts that belong in our textbooks. And at heart that is not an architectural problem at all.

*Boundaries. Simon & Schuster, 24 pp.,