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ART REVIEW

A memorial to forget

The $174-million project honoring World War II veterans, opening this week on Washington's National Mall, is a wretchedly conceptualized effort that plays up modern excess and discounts the common man.

May 23, 2004|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

Washington, D.C. — Memorial designs rarely say as much about the past as they do about the present. Fifty-nine years after Hitler was crushed and Tojo's minions were defeated, the new World War II Memorial being dedicated this week on the National Mall tells us not who we were in 1945 but who we have become today. Built at a staggering cost of $174 million, overbearing in style and garish in design, the memorial celebrates the Grandiose Generation: ours.

For nearly half a century, the story of America's victory in World War II was the story of the citizen-soldier. The pharmacist from a small town in Oklahoma transformed into an able paratrooper. The librarian from New Orleans skillfully leading troops into battle. The school nurse from Buffalo who rescued fallen comrades behind enemy lines.

Legions of housewives at home metamorphosed into Rosie the Riveter, their backyards blossoming as victory gardens and their long days marked by sacrifice and heartache. As befits a democratic republic whose military serves at the pleasure of civilian government, these citizen-soldiers stopped the fascist juggernaut in its tracks.

On Saturday this potent American story will undergo a stark mutation. Official Washington will gather to dedicate the National World War II Memorial, an extravagant narrative in granite and bronze that buries the citizen-soldier beneath a vainglorious display of funereal motifs. Long overdue as a grateful commemoration of exceptional events, it instead celebrates the rise of an American imperium.

Pomposity, arrogance and mediocrity are not terms that have ever been associated with the common men and women whose uncommon valor abroad and at home made America the envy of the world, in the wake of global war. But they are very much the terms with which this awful memorial remembers their intrepid deeds. And in one critical commemorative detail, which we'll get to in a moment, it even leaves a viewer slack-jawed.

Adding insult to injury, this new story interrupts and permanently scars the most powerful symbolic narrative in the history of American art. The memorial unfolds in a 7.4-acre plaza ungracefully wedged into the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial, at the east end of the Reflecting Pool directly across 17th Street from the Washington Monument. Its placement does irreparable damage to the eloquent design of the National Mall, whose great cross-axes articulate the founding principles of American democracy.

The memorial was principally designed by former dean of the Rhode Island School of Design, Friedrich St. Florian. The American Battle Monuments Commission, a federal agency also responsible for the surpassingly ugly Korean War Veterans Memorial south of the Reflecting Pool, is the sponsor. (These fiascoes should be remembered the next time the commission comes knocking with a memorial plan.) Astoundingly, given the new memorial's central prominence in the mall's celebratory two-mile sweep, its design elements are based on cemetery motifs.

Fifty-six stone grave markers ring the oval site, one for every state and territory in the period, plus the District of Columbia. Their form derives from an ancient Greek type called a stele. Each speckled gray slab is 17 feet tall and draped, front and back, with cast-bronze funeral wreaths. Patterns of wheat sheaves and oak leaves alternate in the 112 wreaths.

A stele is usually a solid stone slab, but tall vertical slots are cut in the center of these. The slab is rectilinear, the sides of the interior opening curved -- a plinth awkwardly married with columns. These vertical slots mean to create transparency, in an effort not to block the great open vista between the nearby monuments to Washington and Lincoln. Mostly they just make the grave markers look spindly while visually doubling their already ungainly number.

Cut into the granite balustrade that connects the 56 funeral markers, open horizontal slots are adorned with massive swags of bronze rope. They mean to create an illusion of tying the slab-columns together. The motif, a clumsy symbol for national unity during the war, actually weakens the essential sense of monumentality.

Too much going on

Clutter is among the memorial's biggest problems. A lot is going on here, but the bustle never reaches climax or arrives at a focal point. A visitor is left to wander, reading a dozen wartime homilies -- "a date which will live in infamy," "they had no right to win, but they did," "the eyes of the world are upon you" -- chiseled in the stone.

The plaza was constructed around the Lincoln Memorial's former Rainbow Pool, which was demolished and rebuilt at a smaller scale. The baroque pool now sports a ring of 100 water jets, punctuated at each end by a splashing geyser. Joined by four more nearby sets of cascading waterfalls, the visual clutter is matched by roaring noise. Contemplative it's not.

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