World War II Memorial a Classic Example of Excess (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

By Sally Kalson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

If the goal of art and architecture is to elicit strong reactions, then the World War II monument succeeds. The designer, Friedrich St. Florian, a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, said his challenge was to “create a place of serenity to reflect upon the great gift that the World War II generation bestowed upon us.” Supporters think he achieved that goal, but my own reaction is very different. Namely: The Nazis lost the war, but their architecture is still alive and kicking.I should note here that I have nothing but the utmost respect for, and gratitude to, the Americans who served in World War II. These include an uncle who was an Air Force navigator on a B-17 over Europe and a father-in-law who stormed the beaches on D-Day.

But I have never understood why anyone thinks we will “honor” these men, and women, by defacing the National Mall, that gorgeous sweep of open land between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, with a World War II memorial that evokes the very enemy they vanquished, the Third Reich itself.

Every rendering I’ve seen of the memorial summons for me the ghost of Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect. Indeed, had the Axis powers defeated the Allies, this is the kind of monument Speer might have designed in commemoration.

Two 49-foot memorial arches, 56 stone pillars 23 feet in height, each adorned with a bronze wreath — to me, it’s gigantic and grandiose, bombastic and authoritarian, faceless and monolithic.

What does this have to do with the farmers, teachers, factory workers, janitors, police officers, salesmen, nurses and other everyday guys and gals who beat back fascism on the other side of the world, who then came home to live relatively modest lives, and, if my own family is any model, maintain a fairly low profile about their wartime experiences?

I asked Pat Lowry, the Post-Gazette’s architectural writer, if this was a knee-jerk response, or if my reaction made any sense in artistic or historical context.

“It makes sense,” she said. “The design is based in classicism, and Speer gave classicism a bad name.”

Then there’s the fact that the pillars will surround the Rainbow Pool, closing it in and separating it from the Reflecting Pool, marring the vast open space that so fittingly represents the ideal of American democracy — or has, until now.

With its placement smack in the middle of the mall, the monument is an intrusion. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the highly popular and arguably the most emotionally affecting monument in Washington, beckons millions each year from its off-to-the-side location. This one will force itself into our faces, as if its planners didn’t trust us to go see it otherwise. The paradoxes are not lost on many WWII veterans, who have protested that the monument is antithetical to the principles they fought to uphold.

The deed seems to be done now. Even though the National Capital Planning Commission voted May 3 to revisit all aspects of the design, Congress intervened. And on Monday, President Bush ordered construction to begin. Opponents vow to continue their fight, but their chances seem slim to none.

WWII veterans are dying now at a rate of 1,100 each day. The memorial’s supporters say it’s taken far too long to get the show on the road. That’s primarily due to the sensitive location on which they refused to compromise, not a reluctance to give WWII veterans their due.

Controversy over public art is nothing new, and sometimes even the biggest critics come around over time. Critics howled over Maya Lin’s design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, calling it a “gash in the earth” and a “black wall of shame.” Those complaints have receded into history, overcome by millions of name rubbings and billions of tears.

So I’ll visit the WWII memorial when it’s finished, just as I visit all the other memorials. I choke up at the wall, feel humble in Lincoln’s shadow, look up at Jefferson in awe and feel peace among the water gardens dedicated to FDR.

I’m not expecting anything so positive from Florian’s design. To me, classical architecture will probably always invoke fascism. But we shall see.