Our Monuments, Our Selves: What we built then, what we build now (The Weekly Standard )

By Catesby Leigh, The Weekly Standard

Rodney Mims Cook Jr. is an Atlanta architect and philanthropist with an idea for the nation’s capital. He wants to erect in Washington, D.C.-on the traffic circle where Pennsylvania Avenue meets the Anacostia River-a privately funded triumphal arch celebrating the new millennium.

Rather than distinguishing itself from Washington’s great architectural tradition-the tradition that gave us the Capitol, the Library of Congress, and the White House-this new arch would unambiguously build on that tradition. Cook envisions the sort of grand urban gesture would have pleased the man who conceived the plan for our “federal city” more than hundred years ago, Pierre-Charles L’Enfant.

By way of contrast, consider the World War II Memorial soon to be built a few miles away the main east-west axis of the Mall in Washington, between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.

You would think that a memorial for World War II would be an emphatically vertical mass-a triumphal arch, say-situated on a major axis. One appropriate site would be the traffic circle at the Virginia end of the Arlington Memorial Bridge. Scott Circle, six blocks up Sixteenth Street from the White House, would be another. But the Mall itself boasts a symmetrical of monumental structures, with the Washington Monument halfway between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial, which no one wants to disrupt. A poor choice of location has thus hamstrung the World War II Memorial’s design from the outset, mandating an essentially horizontal, landscape-oriented scheme.

Architect Friedrich St. Florian’s design sinks the oval-shaped Rainbow Pool (located at the end of the Reflecting Pool) six feet below ground, creating a sunken plaza larger than a football field. The plaza is terminated at its north and south ends by what the design calls”triumphal arches.” Symbols of victory in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters, these structures are actually pavilions, aligned with rows of elms ranging along the Reflecting Pool.

Fifty-six free-standing pillars extend from the pavilions in semicircular formations. Like the piers supporting the pavilions, these seventeen-foot pillars boast unsightly rectilinear voids intended to convey a sense of openness at the site. However novel their treatment may be the pillars merely clutter up the design. When viewed from Seventeenth Street, they will detract from the sense of imposing scale the pavilions, which are 42 feet tall, are supposed to convey. The trees enveloping the pavilions will have the same effect. In a sense, the World War II Memorial is respectful of the timeless architecture that defines Washington’s monumental core: It fears to intrude; it wants to be a monument without imposing on the existing landscape.

In a way, the World War II Memorial harks back to the modernized or “stripped” classical buildings that went up during the 1920s and 1930s in Berlin, Moscow, Rome, and elsewhere. These buildings generally betray an emphasis on flat, rectilinear masses, less use of ornament, and a resulting diminution of the interplay of light and shade characteristic of classical architecture. After World War II, of course, triumphant modernism swept such feeble ersatz aside. The idea was that a new architecture would replace traditional practice.

But things didn’t work out that way. What transpired is merely the suppression of the formal language that had endured for 2,500 years-with nothing to replace it. The World War II Memorial, however retrograde it might seem to modernist iconoclasts, is one example of the depressing confusion we suffer these days. There are plenty of others:

  • Norfolk, Virginia, has a new Armed Forces Memorial featuring twenty bronze sculptures of letters home from men and women killed in America’s wars, with the letters scattered across a park pavement as if by a breeze. It is a case study in ranksentimentality.
  • Across the state, a National D-Day Memorial, nearing completion outside the town of Bedford, boasts what may be the world’s first attempt at an Art Deco triumphal arch. Perched on a scenic hilltop and rising to a slightly greater height than St. Florian’s pavilions, this inappropriately stark, dark structure of polished deep-green granite is crowned not with figure sculpture, but with baffling abstractions of houses with steeply pitched roofs. Such roofs, it happens, are found in the towns of Normandy. The “houses,” moreover, are alternately striped black and white to evoke the identifying stripes on the Allied aircraft which supported the invasion.
  • In Indianapolis, construction of a magnificent Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument a century ago inspired the development of a nearby monumental precinct, which includes an Indiana War Memorial modeled on the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, as well as parks, gardens, and plazas decorated with impressive fountains and sculpture. Somewhere along the way, however, Indianapolis lost its nerve. The city’s latest war memorial, a tribute to Congressional Medal of Honor recipients, is not so much a work of civic art as a high-tech modernist contraption. The Medal of Honor Memorial consists mainly of an irregular arrangement of twenty-seven curved walls of blue-green glass alongside a park canal in downtown Indianapolis. Opaque rear panels bear seemingly random streaks and swirls in low relief, abstractly representing, according to the architects, influences on the heroes’ lives.
  • In Richmond, California, we have a new memorial to the women who worked as welders and shipfitters during World War II. One obvious idea for such a memorial would be a statue that takes its formal cues from Norman Rockwell’s famous Saturday Evening Post cover of “Rosie the Riveter.” But the California memorialinstead consists mainly of an abstract steel sculpture with a few ladder-like elements that serve as frames for documentary material. Intended to recall the unfinished frame of a Liberty ship, the memorial looks like a jungle-gym designed by Alexander Calder.
  • A look at Washington’s monumental core reveals the same confusion of tongues. Consider the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial. On the one hand, we have Maya Lin’s completely abstract, chevron-shaped, black granite wall wedged into the landscape and inscribed with the names of the dead and missing. Impressive only in its conceptual simplicity, Lin’s design is anything but heroic. On the other hand, we have Frederick Hart’s subdued sculpture of three soldiers peering warily into the distance. They are placed so as to appear to be looking at the names of the dead and missing on the wall, though it is doubtful one visitor in ten will make that connection unless tipped off by a guide. These two components of the memorial reflect nothing except incompatible notions of what art is.

A similar confusion haunts the new Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, which threads its way through an arboreal landscape in West Potomac Park between the Tidal Basin and the Potomac. Extending over more than seven acres, the memorial consists mainly of four large enclosures corresponding to Roosevelt’s terms in office. Its massive walls of brownishquarry-faced granite suggest-bewilderingly-some sort of primordial ruin.

The walls bear quotations chosen according to their familiarity (“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”) or political correctness (“I hate war”). Waterfalls and cascades run over or through the walls, while trees, shrubs, vines, and turf provide insufficient relief from the monotony of the granite walls and pavement.

The memorial also includes a smorgasbord of low-quality figurative bronze sculpture-the major effect of which is not to improve things but to make the confusion worse. George Segal’s dejected Depression figures are sculptural zombies, bronze casts of molds taken from live models wrapped in plaster-impregnated fabric. Neil Estern’s statue of Roosevelt is a case study in pathologically rigorous naturalism. Estern has managed to make his Roosevelt look old, sick, tired, and ugly-his expressionless face too fat, his front teeth protruding, and the sacks under his eyes painstakingly rendered.

Unveiled only last month, Robert Graham’s statue of Roosevelt in the wheelchair he designed for himself is a belated addition to the memorial. Situated in another large enclosure that serves as a sort of forecourt, the statue is vastly and deliberately diminished by its setting. Graham has preferred to cut the president down to size rather than make him larger than life. Though sporting the familiar fedora, his Roosevelt looks as though he had not fully emerged from the clay when the sculpture was cast. His face is incompletely articulated; his hands and clothes even more so. The curious configuration of his mouth and the opaque lenses of his pince-nez give him a vague, blank expression.

The memorial’s architect, Lawrence Halprin, obviously did not intend this statue, or any other, to have a monumental effect. No respectful distances here; not a pedestal is to be found. The intention, rather, has been to secure an easy, playful familiarity with the artwork,in stark contrast to French’s statue in the Lincoln Memorial at one end of Washington’s Malland Shrady’s tremendous sculptural tribute to Grant at the other end. And yet, it must be noted that Halprin has sought in his Roosevelt memorial to convey monumentality with his primitive, Cyclopean walls and his waterfalls (though they prove too inartistic to have the emotional impact their designer clearly wanted).

This confusion-this anti-monumental monumentalism-is the overwhelming feature of memorial architecture today, and it is ruining America’s public spaces. Modernism failed, in large part, because it could not satisfy our need for monuments: To be a human being-occasionally heroic, but always temporal, mortal, and forgetful-is to desire the monuments that modernism could not provide. But this failure, after decades of sterile experimentation with “pure” abstract forms, has not yet led us back to the coherent architectural vocabulary modernism set out to destroy.

So we are left with babble. Every memorial and public building seems to be at odds with every other, and time and again one finds architects trying to duck the problem of monumentality by hiding their memorials-sinking them below grade, snuggling them into the landscape, scattering them across public spaces without providing anything in the way of vertical integration and focus, masking them with trees. It is as though these monuments were embarrassed to be what they are. But, even hidden away, the resulting monuments do not succeed, for they turn out to be at war with themselves.

The new Oklahoma City National Memorial, dedicated by President Bush last week, testifies to our narrow horizons. This three-acre landscape memorial, erected at the site of the bombed Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, consists of two large, flat, rectilinear portals clad in bronze panels. The portals are respectively inscribed 9:01 and 9:03 with digital-watch-style numerals. They serve as a conceptual time-frame for the moment of the infamous bombing, which occurred at 9:02 in the morning. A long, shallow reflecting pool lined with black granite extends between the portals.

One hundred sixty-eight chairs occupy the footprint of the Murrah Building. They have rectilinear bronze backs whose rectilinear voids echo the portals. The chairs are arranged in rows of irregular length, with each row corresponding to the victims on each floor of the building. Nineteen smaller chairs in the second row recall the children killed in the building’s day-care center. The seats of the chairs are mounted on glass bases, resembling blocks of ice, with the names of the victims etched on the chairs’ bases.

Near one of the portals, a ravaged remnant of the Murrah Building’s walls bears panels of salvaged granite inscribed with the names of survivors of the bombing. Alongside the nearby Journal-Record building, the “Survivors’ Tree,” an American elm that was scorched but not destroyed in the explosion, stands in a small plaza. Black bricks filling windows and a broken fire-escape ladder on the newspaper building serve as reminders. Segments of the original chain-link fence surrounding the compound invite the posting of Teddy bears, tee-shirts, messages, and flowers, as they have since the bombing’s aftermath. Such mementos also are left on the chairs. Finally, a special children’s enclave in the “Rescuers’ Orchard” contains chalkboards in the pavement where youngsters can express their feelings-“an important component,” in the words of the sponsoring foundation, “of the healing process.”

The Oklahoma City memorial’s minimalism is grounded in sentimental notions of therapy, nothing more. Why have we lost the capacity to build monuments that aspire to relate human suffering to a larger sense of life? To use figurative symbols to evoke the juncture of mortal life and eternity?

Take a look at Gettysburg Battlefield, whose classical landscape is studded with equestrian bronzes and other statues, as well as obelisks, exedras bearing sculpture and inscriptions, the great domed pavilion of the Pennsylvania Memorial, and a multitude of regimental monuments closely akin to cemetery memorials or gravestones.

Its profusion of monuments and workers not withstanding, the Gettysburg landscape has a general artistic unity-and the key to its emotional impact is found precisely in this unity. The landscape forms part of the classical world that has persisted in the Western imagination for thousands of years.

The idiosyncratic Oklahoma City park, in contrast, is as time-bound as its time-framed pool. Like Lin’s wall, it is a zeitgeist memorial, a monument du jour, which stakes no claim on the future for the sorrows and achievements of the past.

The emotional reductionism of our new memorials is further reflected in their sentimental emphasis on tactile response. A visitor to the Roosevelt Memorial is invited to run his fingers along the bloated Braille dots and the hand imprints adorning Robert Graham’s utterly bizarre Social Programs Panels and Columns. The kiddies get to tug on the ears of the statue of Fala, the president’s dog.

Lin’s wall and the walls at Indianapolis’s Medal of Honor Memorial similarly invite us to reach out and touch someone, whether the names inscribed on them or our own reflected selves. At Oklahoma City, people leave ephemeral hand-prints on the portals’ blank bronze panels.

Similarly, the spatial diffusion of recent monuments reflects our conceptual confusion. A case in point is the D-Day Memorial in Virginia, with its clunky canvas-covered pavilions suggesting tents, its board-formed concrete walls suggesting German bunkers, its hyper-realistic (and, fortunately, dynamic) sculptures of American troops dispersed within huge plaza in which the unfettered realism becomes preposterous.

Meanwhile, symbol gives way to documentation and “education.” Lamentably, the success of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington-where the main attraction is a multi-media, documentary chamber of horrors-has encouraged the inclusion of “education centers” in memorial projects from coast to coast.

Not surprisingly, contemporary memorials-to say nothing of contemporary public buildings-often seem trivial when juxtaposed to traditional works. In Richmond, for example, there was a furor a few years back when a sculpture of Arthur Ashe, a native son, was erected on Monument Avenue, whose civic art had been exclusively devoted to the paladins of the Confederacy. The debate focused mostly on the historical and thematic appropriateness of the Ashe Memorial’s location, though it occupies a minor site on the avenue and is modestly scaled.

But the real problem is the sculpture itself, and its failure to rise to the level of the nearby works, which include a fine memorial to Jefferson Davis and truly brilliant equestrians of Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart. Ashe is perched with a group of children on a poorly-designed cylindrical pedestal crowned, strangely, by a metal rail. Dressed in a warm-up suit, the bespectacled Ashe (he would look better without glasses) holds up a tennis racket in one hand and a pair of books in the other as the youngsters reach up to him. The figures are too naturalistic and too leaden in their gestures. Utterly devoid of the gravitas of the nearby memorials, this composition might do nicely for a UNICEF card.

Elsewhere, identity politics have been injected into civic art with far more absurd results. A visit to the Roosevelt Memorial is less a rendezvous with destiny than a rendezvous with disability.

The original design for the memorial hardly suppressed evidence of the president’s affliction: Estern’s Roosevelt is shown with a bony knee jutting out-a clear reference to his polio-while tell-tale casters are visible on the back of his chair. A time-line inscribed on the risers in a series of steps towards the end of the memorial notes that after being stricken with the disease in 1921, Roosevelt never again walked unaided. Moreover, a replica of his wheelchair was fabricated for display in the visitors’ center-cum-souvenir shop facing the enclosure where Robert Graham’s statue of Roosevelt in his wheelchair now resides.

But all this wasn’t enough for the National Organization on Disability, which prevailed uponCongress and President Clinton to mandate the addition of Graham’s statue.

There are some signs of intelligent life in American monumental design, however. Raymond Kaskey, for instance, garnered national attention during the 1980s with his beautiful Portlandia statue, which adorns Michael Graves’s curious postmodern Portland Building. Now the sculptural decoration of the World War II Memorial has been entrusted to Kaskey. So far, he has produced an elaborate decorative composition for the interiors of the two pavilions. These bronze sculptures will include columns in each corner of the pavilions, on which eagles will be perched. A great wreath will be suspended from ribbons the eagles clutch in their beaks. Kaskey has also been assigned the task of producing twenty-four bronze relief panels for the walls on each side of the grass terraces and stairways leading down to the sunken plaza from Seventeenth Street.

And yet, before Kaskey’s talents can best be put to use, St. Florian and his sponsors at the American Battlefield Monuments Commission must take a bold but indispensable step: Scrap the ersatz-classicism. Scrap the see-through pillars. Scrap the pseudo-gestures toward the great tradition that our recent memorials habitually denigrate. Then put Kaskey in charge of an expanded sculptural program involving other studios as well as his own. Take Gettysburg as a model-where idealized figures of Victory and Peace have their realistic counterparts in the countless figures of soldiers.

The preliminary scheme produced by a group of young competition-winning architects for the Millennium Monument, though infinitely preferable to the World War II Memorial design, similarly reveals the need to give sculpture a larger role. The Atlas figures at the foot of the arch’s piers are a good start. But the spandrels are stark naked. The Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Arch in Brooklyn clearly illustrates figure sculpture’s crucial contribution to a great triumphal arch.

So, too, it is not too late to improve the design of the World War II Memorial. It is not too late, for instance, to do away with the minimalist panoply of golden stars tacked onto the exedra wall abutting the Reflecting Pool and to rethink the exedra’s artistic treatment. It is not too late to enrich the pavilions’ threadbare architecture in a manner befitting Kaskey’s decorative scheme. Then the pavilions could stand proudly, with no need for a screen of trees enveloping the memorial at its north and south ends.

With the clutter of the pillars eliminated, moreover, sculpture could assume its rightful, central role, with the eight massive stone cheekblocks on the memorial plaza’s perimeter serving as pedestals. Nowhere is the memorial more in need of animating figures than at the Rainbow Pool itself. The American Battle Monuments Commission is being pressured to settle for a torchlight or water-jet or some similarly minimal gesture in the pool, to minimize impact on the Mall’s central axis. If the commission takes that route, the memorial will be little more than a picture frame for the Lincoln Memorial. Given World War II’s place in American history, that would be a travesty.

President Bush could make an important contribution to the resurgence of monumentality in American design. Two initial, high-profile gestures of respect towards America’s classical heritage come to mind. The first would be to put an end to a frontal assault on L’Enfant’s plan for Washington by opening up the 1600 block of Pennsylvania Avenue, which President Clinton closed in the wake of the Murrah bombing. The second would be to do away with perverse new designs that have stripped our paper currency of symmetry and ornamental detail. Such artistic vandalism has made the bills less distinctive, less legible, and far less beautiful.

The next step would be to deep-six the Guidelines for Federal Architecture, which Daniel Patrick Moynihan drew up during the Kennedy administration and which serve as holy writ for the General Service Administration’s Public Buildings Service. These guidelines warn against “development of an official style” and insist that “design must flow from the architectural profession to the government and not vice-versa.” They call for architecture that reflects “the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of the American government”-which is to say, a monumental architecture-while making it a practical impossibility. They ignore the fact that America’s monumental public buildings are, in their overwhelming majority, classical; they also ignore the fact that the historical relativism in which the American architectural establishment is swamped is anything but conducive to monumental design. All these guidelines have done, in fact, is open the gates to a succession of stylistic fads.

The reorientation of federal architectural patronage should begin with our memorials. Monumentality is far from dead, because human beings will always crave it. Our newer memorials, in all too many cases, represent the legacy of a failed crusade against human nature. American culture offers plenty of opportunities for the depiction of the transient aspects of contemporary life. In designing our monuments, however, we can assert the universal. We can assert that the past has a claim not just on us, but on the future.