New War Memorial Is Shrine to Sentiment (The New York Times)

By Herbert Muschamp, The New York Times

Three works of architecture in postwar Washington have challenged the status quo: I. M. Pei’s East Wing of the National Gallery, Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial and James Ingo Freed’s United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. They owe their distinction to the skill with which they honor the Enlightenment concept of clear geometric form while rejecting the ornamental particularities of neo- Classical style.

Mr. Pei introduced geometric abstraction and asymmetry into an illustrational backdrop of classical order. Ms. Lin opposed the horizontal contour of a sunken black chevron against a city of white columns. Mr. Freed, in the most astonishing inversion of the city’s classical harmony, turned his stone facade into a sinister symbol of the totalitarian state. All three designs developed abstract geometry into complex formal vocabularies. The forms enabled them to express complex ideas. As a result, they honored the Enlightenment tradition of daring to know. They renewed the meaning of the neo-Classical buildings around them.

By contrast, Friedrich St. Florian’s design for the National World War II Memorial diminishes the substance of its architectural context. The design does not dare to know. It is, instead, a shrine to the idea of not knowing or, more precisely, of forgetting. It erases the historical relationship of World War II to ourselves. It puts sentiment in the place where knowledge ought to be.

An aura of inevitability surrounded the memorial even before the legislation to build it had been signed. It is the aura we have come to associate with certain Hollywood movies ‹ “Pearl Harbor” being the most recent example ‹ whose commercial success is virtually guaranteed even if critical esteem eludes them.

As designed by Mr. St. Florian, the Rhode Island architect, the memorial reproduces a style of architecture associated with the World War II period and the decade preceding it. Sometimes called modern classical, the style was frequently used by architects for federal buildings in Washington and elsewhere. Columns and pilasters are more massive than the classical orders, typically rectangular rather than round. Friezes, lettering and articulation of the volume substitute for antique refinements like fluting and scrolls.

The project, whose construction may be speeded by legislation that President Bush signed last week, will occupy 7.4 acres on the Mall. The bulk of this is properly described as landscape, rather than architectural, design. It incorporates the area now occupied by the Rainbow Pool, at the eastern end of the Reflecting Pool between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial.

The pool will be restored and enclosed by two hemicircles of steles. The 56 granite pillars 17 feet tall represent each state, territory and the District of Columbia during that war period. Arched pavilions 43 feet high on the north and south ends of the plaza will be dedicated to the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of the war. The design’s best feature is its sensitivity to the site. Scale notwithstanding, the memorial is not the visual obstruction many have feared. The remodeled Reflecting Pool, which has been in a state of decrepitude for years, will enhance, not diminish, the existing vistas. The hemicircular arrangement enables the steles to be partly screened by trees.

Still, the design is seriously flawed. Its classical vocabulary does not create the transcendent framework that the sponsors (the American Battle Monuments Commission and an advisory board) seem to have in mind. Rather, the forms employed are charged with historical and ideological content that contradicts this apparent intention.

Some critics have compared St. Florian’s design to the work of Albert Speer, Hitler’s armaments minister. A trained architect, Speer was chosen by the Führer to redesign Berlin as Germania, the colossally scaled capital of the Thousand Year Reich. The comparison is overwrought. The memorial’s modern classical style was favored by Mussolini, Roosevelt, Stalin and other government leaders in the 1930’s. Examples of this style can be found all over Washington and in many other cities with federal courthouses, post offices and other government buildings designed in the 1930’s and 40’s. In that limited sense, St. Florian’s design is true to the events it commemorates.

But the design also reveals the hazard of relying on period styles to evoke memories of past events. Those who expect memorials to deepen historical awareness will be disappointed by the design. Theoretically, the memorial has been conceived to honor those who fought in service of democracy. In fact, the style chosen recalls a period gripped by the widespread fear that democracy was doomed.

In the United States, this fear was held alike by left and right wings of the political spectrum. Democracy, so the reasoning went, equaled individualism, and unbridled individualism had precipitated the catastrophe of the Depression. Only strong centralized government, whether socialist or fascist, could lead the country out of the mess. Political extremes met in the bombastic form of massive granite facades, square pilasters, eagles and other motifs from the repertory of ancient Rome.

This is an astonishing message to reiterate at a time that professes opposition to Big Government. Though the message may be unintentional, the design nonetheless displays a profound sense of historical amnesia. There is a difference between architecture and propaganda, even if Washington is a city where the distinction is easily blurred. The memorial’s design can’t be accurately appraised without venturing into the fog. Washington’s core formal concept ‹ its neo-Classical plan and architectural aesthetic ‹ is symbolically sound. Architects of the Enlightenment saw neo-Classicism as a reaction to rococo excess. The relative clarity of the style’s geometrical forms represented scientific reason. It suited the idea of a nation governed by laws, not men.

But Enlightenment architects also believed that art and architecture adhered to universal laws. It was the job of the academies to discover and enforce them. It turns out, however, that the culture of a modern democracy thrives on challenging this belief. Our political system is great because it enables authority to be challenged. Washington is relatively insubstantial architecturally because it does not. The city’s Fine Arts Commission, the agency charged with regulating architectural aesthetics, is more or less in the business of preventing such challenges from materializing where they might distract visiting schoolchildren from the overwhelming impression of authority.

In recent years, “World War II” has come to epitomize the use and misuse of historical memory. Tom Brokaw’s best-selling books, Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster movies, a forthcoming 10-part HBO miniseries “based on the true story of the men of Easy Company” and other offerings have simultaneously increased historical awareness and substituted emotional manipulation for it.

However sincere the intentions of individual writers, filmmakers and producers of commercial spinoffs, the cause of remembering the war has also served the objective of forgetting the unfolding of history before and since. Before Vietnam, before Watergate, before the cultural distortions of the cold war, there was an age of moral certainty, a time innocent of complexity, irony or ambiguity. This time can be bracketed between the years 1939 and 1945.

But this view of the war years is rooted in the moral uncertainties of our own day. So is the World War II Memorial’s design. It represents our yearning for the timeless and eternal to distract us from the relative and the complex. After the failures of the so-called American Century, that yearning is understandable and even heroic, up to a point. If the soldiers who fought in the war aren’t entitled to such sentiments, who is?

But the yearning for a transcendent meaning raises new complexities in turn. When Washington was conceived, it was possible to imagine a nation that would stand outside history, including its own. It would adhere to the Enlightenment belief in natural law. That belief, along with its architectural representation, remains valid in the case of government institutions.

In the case of historical memory, it is inadequate. We do not honor history by seeking to transcend it. Nor do we transcend it by copying period styles. The sponsors of the St. Florian design want it both ways. They ask us to accept that a period style can remember and transcend simultaneously. Instead, these goals neutralize each other. At best, the result represents a failure of historical imagination. This failure condemns a potential work of architecture to a level of well-designed propaganda.

Mr. St. Florian’s design looks like a monument. It looks like history. It was probably chosen on account of its generic appearance. And in a city whose public architecture often resembles a revolving rack of postcards, well-designed propaganda may well pass for authenticity itself.

This may be a case where people will want to decide for themselves where their sentiments about the war lie. That is because the official World War II Memorial gives the impression of being foisted upon us, like it or not. The impression is not entirely false. It stems from the embattled condition of public space in the era of privatization. Isn’t this the heart of the problem? For all its claims to moral certainty, the memorial is mired in our present-day confusion over the rights and responsibilities of government in the management of public space.

Want to adopt a highway? A park or civic monument? A school? A prison? A symphony hall? Someone has to do it, or else these pieces of property will sink back into the primordial ooze or its modern version, real estate development.

In the United States, public space is rapidly becoming a subsidiary of the entertainment industry. Television occupies a vast majority of the social realm once defined by streets, town halls, public squares. Computers take up an increasing share of the rest. Then come shopping malls, business improvement districts, theme parks, multiplexes and Indian casinos. There’s a bit left over for sidewalks, but perhaps not for long. It’s too expensive to police them. They’ve got to pay their way. Eventually someone will patrol them with surveillance cameras and market the videos on reality pay TV.

The World War II Memorial can be seen as a monument to the military- entertainment industry complex, our new enforcers of the global Pax American Pop Culture. It is a Spielberg production featuring Tom Hanks in a cast of all-star unknown soldiers. Naturally, the design looks authentic. It’s a special effect. A digitized backdrop, like the Colosseum in “Gladiator.” Mr. St. Florian’s simulated national monument is perfect, down to every period detail.

No one can say that this project is out of step with our recent political life. It is faithful to Ronald Reagan, who confused making combat training movies with actually seeing wartime action. To George Bush senior, the president who defeated the “Vietnam syndrome” with the televised Operation Desert Storm. And to Bill Clinton, the maestro of public emoting, choking back tears on Normandy Beach.

The National Mall, however, is not the place for a permanent movie set, nor should the public be treated like a captive audience. If you don’t like “Pearl Harbor,” you can always walk out. If the buzz around “Saving Private Ryan” or “Schindler’s List” strikes you as manipulative and overblown, you can stay away from the multiplex. These options will not be available for visitors to the Mall. You liked the movie. You’ll love the building. It will outlive you, anyhow.

Copyright The New York Times 2001

 

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