landscape architecture HOME
Subscribe | Magazine Index | Advertise | Subscribe | Search | Contact Us | FAQs
Land Matters
Product Profiles
American Society of Landscape Architects


Touchstones of Memory
Both controversial and compromising, the design of a national memorial is a challenging process.
By Heather Hammatt

As World War II and other memorable events in 20th-century American history recede into the depths of recent memory, those who participated scramble to solidify the patriotism and heroism of their times for future generations. Creating permanent memories of marble, granite, and bronze, some stir up controversy with their grand, ostentatious designs, sited to sprawl across treasured landmark views. Others abstractly reflect memory in an elegant, polished granite surface, or more literally with a series of lifelike bronze statues set amidst sculpted granite planes.

"Memorials are 'urbanscapes'—not landscapes, not architecture. They deal with the central nervous system of a community, dealing with the very essence of a group of individuals or events being commemorated," says Davis Buckley, a Washington, D.C., architect and designer of the National Japanese American Memorial (NJAM), one of the latest additions to Washington's monument collection. "Every memorial is, in essence, a symbol. Whether a memorial is abstract or literal, object or landscape, text or graphic, or any combination of these, the memorial is a representation of something beyond itself, which holds great significance for an individual or society," writes Buckley in a statement on the design of memorials.

The design of the NJAM is intended to commemorate the Japanese American experience in World War II America, from hardships endured by those 120,000 people interred in the bleak War Relocation Authority (WRA) camps to the ultimate sacrifice of the more than 800 Japanese Americans killed in action while volunteering for service with the U.S. Military Intelligence Service, the 100th Infantry Battalion, and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The memorial is unique in that it remembers the civic patriotism of the survivors of a less-than-praiseworthy era in American history in addition to honoring the heroic patriotism of soldiers. Following President Franklin D. Roosevelt's February 19, 1942, Executive Order 9066, persons of Japanese descent, whether or not they were U.S. citizens, were removed from their homes and placed in wra camps for the duration of the war.

"Ironically, the country was fighting to vanquish the Axis of evil, and in the process it took along a group of people and put them through an experience that suggested that [American] society needed to change," says Cressey Nakagawa, a San Francisco lawyer and founding member of the Japanese American Memorial Foundation (JAMF). The memorial stands as a public apology, a caveat to the future guardians of civil liberties.

The quiet presence of this simple yet elegantly detailed memorial belies the complicated process of its creation. Did the Washington, D.C., "machine" swallow another innovative concept, replacing it with a cookie-cutter memorial in the D.C. style? Or is the NJAM's classic elegance intentional, meant to withstand the test of time with a tried-and-true formula? "The role of the foundation, the role of the designers and artists, and the role of those who constructed the memorial, are all one package, one story. It was not a smooth journey, but the end product is one we can be proud of," says founding board member Elizabeth Yamada, a principal with Wimmer, Yamada, and Caughey, a landscape architecture and environmental planning firm in San Diego, California, who was a 12-year-old resident of the WRA camps.

In 1989, the initial proposal—to build a memorial honoring the patriotism of Japanese American Veterans of all wars, focusing on World War II—was introduced to the governing bodies and agencies in D.C. The memorial concept was presented on behalf of the Go-For-Broke National Veterans Association Foundation by the late Mike M. Masaoka, who served as field executive for the Japanese American Citizens League during the World War II years. According to Buckley, it was denied by the National Capital Memorial Commission because of a policy to disapprove all ethnic military memorials.

In 1991, the veterans association returned to Congress with legislation presented by Rep. Norman Mineta and Sen. Daniel Inouye to authorize the building of the memorial. This time the group was armed with a creative design concept, developed by San Diego landscape architect Barney Matsumoto, principal of MLA Design Studio, who had entered and won a design competition sponsored by the Go-For-Broke association. There was no site selected, so the competition's design criteria were minimal. "That attracted me to the project. There are too many monumental memorials in D.C. Generally the Japanese culture is subtle, tranquil, and intimate," says Matsumoto.

"We created a concept of bars that represent the internment system, engraved with the names of the camps. The bars would cast shadows on visitors, reflecting how it would feel [to be interned] and they would frame the nation's capitol in the background," says Matsumoto, a third-generation Japanese American whose parents and grandparents were interned in the WRA camps. "That is how my parents felt. There is the flag. My parents could see it. They were citizens. But they couldn't reach the flag."

The commission again rejected the association's proposal. The members' lack of knowledge about the steps required to succeed in the D.C. approvals process was proving to be a handicap. "When the government bodies told the veterans that they weren't going to accept another war memorial, the veterans said, 'We can't do it, we don't know enough.' That is when they decided to organize a foundation and start the process," says Yamada. The Go-For-Broke National Veterans Association Foundation was restructured to become the NJAMF. "[At this juncture] they decided the competition was not the way to go and that we needed to start over," says Yamada. The newly formed NJAMF Board added influential D.C. people to its roster. "[They] knew that they needed someone who understood the D.C. process," says Yamada.

The board formulated a new approach. "We had a lengthy discussion early on in terms of the conceptual design. We made efforts to draw in and attract the services of Davis Buckley Architects, who had worked on other memorials in D.C.," says Nakagawa. Buckley was indeed a veteran of D.C. memorial design, having designed the National Law Enforcement Memorial, dedicated in October 1991 and having previously served in an advisory capacity for the siting and design of junea Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

With the rejection of the 1991 proposal and the reorganization of the NJAMF Board, Matsumoto's competition-winning design concept was abandoned as the NJAMF's goals changed, causing some misunderstanding, according to both Dennis Otsuji, fasla, and Matsumoto. "It was like starting over, taking something done previously and looking at it with a different purpose," says Otsuji, a San Diego-based landscape architect and NJAMF Board member who served as liaison between Buckley and the NJAMF.

Matsumoto did not understand the decision to switch designers in midstream. "This [design concept] came naturally because of our passion for the project. Why go with a firm that has to learn about the [culture and experience] and not someone who grew up with it?" says Matsumoto. "The monument has been built. I am bitter about the process, but not the cause or the design. I will leave that critique to others," says Matsumoto.

"The NJAMF wanted someone neutral, not predisposed. Some find it strange that a Caucasian is designing a memorial for Japanese Americans. But I never thought about it that way," says Buckley.

Being a fellow San Diegan, Yamada credits Matsumoto's success with the original competition as the catalyst that began her involvement with the NJAM project. Yamada's curiosity was piqued on learning that the competition winner was a professional landscape architect. "Many times landscape architecture is an afterthought," says Yamada. "My experience of the completed memorial is threefold, as internee, foundation member, and as a person involved with the landscape architecture profession," says Yamada.

Yet Yamada is philosophic about the switch from Matsumoto to Buckley. "The veterans who started the project and had the money sent out an RFP without having a site. So, Barney [Matsumoto] was designing a hypothetical concept. That is puzzling. How do you design without a site?" says Yamada. "The Board wasn't really rejecting Barney's concept, they were just starting all over again. If you've been in the design profession, it is always that way. You start off with a concept and the concept changes as the situation changes, as land changes, as purpose changes, and as clients change. It was not 'anti-Barney' or 'pro-Davis,' it was just changes. You have to be flexible. You win some. You lose some."

"When they changed the concept, it changed the approach," says Otsuji. Beginning with site selection, Buckley's previous experience with the D.C. approvals system navigated the association through the pitfalls and stumbling blocks of the memorial approval process. One of the most difficult aspects of the design was the selection of a site, as open land near the National Mall is getting scarce. According to Buckley, the design team studied several sites, some under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service and others controlled by the Architect of the Capitol.

"Prior to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial there was no procedure. You just went for legislation and, upon receiving it, started building," says Buckley of memorial design before the Commemorative Works Act of 1986. "Now, after you receive legislation to build a memorial, you have to go through the site-selection process," adds Buckley. Congress determines whether the memorial's concept is preeminent to the national experience and then, with a location in mind, the design development process can proceed.

Buckley also put in three years pro bono, working with legislatures and various governmental bodies to secure a site that would be visible and have good linkage for the Japanese American community in terms of the site's relation to other organizations and site features dealing with issues of civil and constitutional rights. The resultant selected site, located between Union Station and the National Mall at the corner of Louisiana and New Jersey Avenues, is a triangular wedge of less than an acre that was once part of the Capitol grounds.

Now armed with a site, the design team, with the help of the NJAMF Board and advisory committee, developed a questionnaire distributed to members of the Japanese American community in Hawaii, California, D.C., Washington State, and Japan to help determine the vision for the NJAM. Buckley's team also hosted focus groups with Asian American Studies classes at Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania toward the same goal.

Finally, in October of 1992, a revised concept proposal—highlighting the intent to memorialize both the hardships endured by those interned in the WRA camps and the patriotism of those who served while their families and friends were interned—was unanimously passed and signed into law by President George H.W. Bush. At last the design development process could begin. At this point in the process, the NJAMF Board implemented an advisory panel including several prominent Japanese American designers—Gyo Obata, Noboru Nakamura, and the late Hideo Sasaki, to name a few. Matsumoto was also invited to rejoin the discussion at this time, according to Otsuji. "Hideo [Sasaki], Gyo [Obata], Barney [Matsumoto], and Davis [Buckley] were the key players. When you put all those designers together it gets complicated," says Otsuji. "Davis was taking input from a design standpoint and trying to balance that with the foundation's needs," says Otsuji.

"As the [lead] designer you become an impresario, pulling designers and viewpoints together and dealing with varying opinions to achieve a vision and a concept," says Buckley. Matsumoto, uncomfortable with the arrangement, bowed out of the project altogether. Sasaki and Obata worked with Buckley through some of the design development issues and then later faded from the project due to other commitments.

With the selected site, Buckley had approximately 33,000 square feet to hold his design elements. Buckley collaborated with landscape architect James Urban, FASLA, of Annapolis, Maryland, throughout the design development of the memorial project, on issues of grading, tree preservation, soils, and planting design. "[The site] was a big salad bowl with 25 ingredients. We had to solve the problem of how to integrate all the things that everybody wanted and didn't want. It was amazing that [Buckley's team] was able to put all that together in a simple conceptual statement," says Otsuji. While content to have been involved in this project, Urban still wonders why landscape architects so often take a back seat to architects on the design of memorial spaces, commenting that the landscape architect's role in the design of the NJAM was perhaps more limited than the landscape architecture profession would like to see.

Benjamin Forgey, an architectural critic with the Washington Post, feels that most Washington memorials follow a fairly standard design theme. He recently described the ingredients of a successful, nationally prominent monument design as a "kit of parts" including "a long stone wall, a figurative statue or two, a list of names to be engraved, a few inspiring inscriptions, a pool of water, and of course, some trees and grass." Forgey goes on in his June 30, 2001, article titled "A National Apology Set in Stone" to laud Buckley as a designer who has "been around the memorial-building block a time or two," for successfully managing to use all these elements while avoiding confusion and clutter.

"We [the NJAMF Board] were determined that the memorial would not be a mediocre design," says Yamada. "We wanted it to be aesthetically the best it could be—a unique, remarkable sculptural space." Built to last, out of blocks of full-size, dimension granite, the design fills the entire site with a path of experiences. Visitors who enter from the south (the direction Buckley favors) step into the memorial's story captured in the enclosed circular space that envelops artist Nina Akamu's crane sculpture—two majestic birds, their wings entwined in strands of barbed wire.

The walls of the enclosed space are etched with the story of the Japanese American experience in World War II, from stark panels simply decorated with the names of the internment camps, their locations, and the number of people they housed to quotes from those who experienced the situation firsthand, those who witnessed their experience, and those who have come after. "We wanted to capture the essence of patriotism [with the memorial's quotes and inscriptions]," says Nakagawa.

"The NJAM is a uniquely American story, and it speaks to the greatness of this country and the fact that they can right a wrong and apologize," says Buckley. The focal quote in the collection is one from Ronald Reagan, upon signing the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which simply states: "Here we admit a wrong. Here we affirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law." Buckley's design places Reagan's quote prominently at the notch overlooking the water feature. According to Buckley, beneath the quote an unmarked vault holds earth from the various internment camp sites, an underlying layer of the designers' involvement with the project. "The memorial goes to the issue of who we are as a democracy. That is the underlying thought here, and I was deeply committed to it," says Buckley.

"As we were trying to tell the story, it became evident that if you made the story too long it would obliterate a person's attention span," says Nakagawa. Succinct and dynamic, the quotes etched in the solid stone of the memorial's walls pique the interest of those who june not know the whole history. "When you put [those voices] in place with the names of the camps and the numbers of internees, you get an overarching sense of the bits and pieces that make up the story," says Nakagawa.

Paving and stone walls embrace a shallow pool, designed to emulate a Zen garden, with detailed rings of texture sandblasted into its surface. Water flows from one end to the other in a continuous sheet, eddying around five rough-hewn stones to cascade over a weir and recycle back again. (See Details in this issue.) The stones rise out of the water to frame views in and out of the memorial while abstractly representing the islands of the Japanese mainland or, to some, the generations of Japanese Americans. Harnessing the sounds of water, from rippling flow to rushing fall, the water element creates private spaces and attracts interest.

The lighting plan aims for a moonlit effect, harnessing the soft, subtle glow of fiberoptics throughout. According to Buckley, the use of fiberoptics, while pricier upfront, should save money on subsequent maintenance costs.

The stone walls, lit by sun or man-made light, cant and curve back as visitors travel farther from the enclosed center. The space opens visually, symbolizing the country embracing the volunteerism of the Japanese American community during World War II. "If you see the design as Davis created it, it circles around while everyone looks at the center," says Nakagawa. From the inner core, simple granite paving sweeps you through the space, following the different panels of the story, engraved into the solid stone walls.

Quotes and inscriptions range from all-out apologies like President Reagan's statement to advice to future generations, such as Senator Inouye's "The lessons learned must remain as a grave reminder of what we must not allow to happen again to any group."

The planting plan, developed by Urban, was designed for low maintenance. Yoshino cherry trees line the perimeter of the memorial, softening the edge of the site and providing a showy display of spring color. Ordinary Gumpo azaleas, hostas, liriope, and manicured lawns provide a green border, while groups of cut-leaf and standard Bloodgood Japanese maples create focal points at either end of the space.

As a final touch, a bronze chime, designed by Paul Matisse, the inventor grandson of Impressionist painter Henri Matisse, accents the exit of the memorial. Visitors can interact with the piece by pushing down on a lever, which raises a hammer that strikes a linear metallic cylinder and sends intermittent low vibrations of sound throughout the site. "The deep resonating sound is reminiscent of a Japanese bell, while the act of ringing the chime is an acknowledgment of the [visitors'] experience," says Buckley.

"I feel enriched for being part of the journey [for the design of this memorial]. I learned a lot about my own people, how diverse we are in how we view aesthetics and design and in our historical perspective," says Yamada.

"The memorial tells the story in a beautiful, elegant way and the words are powerful. It becomes ours [as Japanese Americans] and not Japanese." However, many disagree with Yamada's assessment—based on the inclusion in the memorial of a controversial quote—expressing the opinion that an important character in the story line has been left out of the NJAMF's memorial design: the objectors, those who fought against the camps and the courts.

Objection to the addition of Mike Masaoka's voice in the gallery of quotes-an excerpt from his 1941 "Japanese American Creed"-has spawned a protest web site for some who feel that, by excluding those who resisted, the design of the NJAM is not representative of the diversity of the Japanese American community. (For more information, visit The web site's creators feel that Masaoka failed in his position as national secretary and field executive of the Japanese American Citizens League by refusing to protest the exclusion and incarceration of the Japanese American community.

"The memorial is not a conclusion; it is a beginning of the public's being made aware," says Yamada. The NJAMF is currently in the process of developing literature and curricula explaining the background in greater detail. This will allow educators to incorporate the story of the Japanese American experience into the classroom, giving the memorial's "message" a stronger voice.

"This is a memorial that isn't to a movement but is principally a recognition of the fact that, while America has stumbled and has been imperfect, it hasn't fallen," says Nakagawa. "The memorial will provide an opportunity to analyze what patriotism can really mean. Bill Hosokawa, former editor of the Denver Post, summed it up best with his haiku: "Oh America—imperfect, stumbling, striving—lessons from the past."

For more information about the NJAMF and its ongoing programs, visit

Designer: Davis Buckley Architects and Planners, Washington, D.C.: Davis Buckley, principal; Thomas J. Striegel, project manager; Jessica Buckley, Brandon Casey, John Haselby, Johnathan Mann, David Sheerin, and Scott Plante.

Design consultants: Landscape architect, James Urban, FASLA; Sculptor (for cranes), Nina Akamu; Artist, Inventor (for chime), Paul Matisse; Lighting consultant, Claude R. Engle; Typographer, Ann Hawkins.

General contractor: William V. Walsh Construction Company, Inc., Rockville, Maryland: John O'Shaughnessy, project manager; Butch Ledger, superintendent.

Stone contractors: Pagliaro Brothers Stone Co., Inc., Upper Marlboro, Maryland: Joseph Pagliaro, Robert Benedetti; Cold Spring Granite Company, Cold Spring, Minnesota: Duane Kruger.

Client: The National Japanese American Memorial Foundation, Inc.: Rear Admiral Melvin H. Chiogioji ( Ret. ), chairman; The Honorable Norman Y. Mineta, vice chairman; Dennis Otsuji, FASLA, board liaison for design.

Awards won: Henry Herring Sculpture Award: Nina Akamu and Davis Buckley for the design of the crane sculpture. Tucker Architectural Award for Art and Design: Davis Buckley Architects for the stonework.

Directions to the memorial: The NJAM is located at the intersection of New Jersey Avenue, Louisiana Avenue, and D Street in Washington, D.C. The closest Metrorail (subway) stop is Union Station.

What's New | LAND | Annual Meeting
Product Profiles & Directory
ASLA Online



636 Eye Street, NW, Washington, DC 20001-3736 Telephone: 202-898-2444 • Fax: 202-898-1185
©2002 American Society of Landscape Architects. All Rights Reserved.