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American Society of Landscape Architects


July 2004 Issue

Room with a View
The National World War II Memorial frames vistas. Does it articulate a message?

By Allen Freeman

Room with a View
Photo by Ron Blunt

The size of the new National World War II Memorial and its prominent location between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument give it priority and presence on the National Mall. Its bowl shape is distinctive, and its neoclassical style resonates with the Lincoln Memorial's 1920s classical revival landscape.

Descend one of the paired entrance ramps from the east and observe Lincoln's temple perfectly framed over a spill pool of the war memorial's focal Rainbow Pool. Walk along the northwestern periphery and see the Washington Monument poking over an open colonnade. Look across the north—south axis through one arched pavilion to its twin on the other side. You may conclude that although the new memorial symbolizing "the defining event of the twentieth century," as its makers put it, has a sense of place, it is more likely to be remembered for its vistas and bronze sculptures than as a great public monument.

The memorial and its supporting landscape extend over 7.4 acres. Your entry from the east puts you on a plaza surrounding the Rainbow Pool. On the plaza's north and south sides rise twin arched structures, 41 feet high, representing the Atlantic and Pacific campaigns. Two ramps curve down from each structure to the plaza, forming large parentheses at the ends of the central pool. Fifty-six pillars, incised with vertical slits, edge the ramps. The pillars bear the names of the states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territories in existence during the war; bronze wreaths adorn each pillar. Giant, twisted bronze ropes span the columns at their bases to symbolize national unity. On the plaza's west side, the curved Freedom Wall is studded with 4,000 gold stars in full relief to represent America's military war dead.

Landscape architect James van Sweden, FASLA, architect Friedrich St. Florian, sculptor Raymond Kaskey, and stone carver Nicholas Benson gave journalists a preview tour of the memorial on a cool spring day before it opened to the public. It was a pleasant experience, but given the expanses of light granite, one wonders about glare and the comfort level on bright, muggy summer days typical in Washington. Access to the plaza is controlled and focused. From the east, visitors enter down the steps or ramps at the broad entrance at 17th Street, or from the north or south through one of the arches. Visitors approaching from the west, the Lincoln Memorial side, must go a quarter of the way around the walled plaza, enter through one of the arches, and descend the curving ramps that embrace the plaza. All three entrances are fully accessible.

The curved ramps determined the final elevation of the plaza itself. The goal was to create descending walkways that required no landings or handrails, St. Florian explains. The gradual slope coupled with the ramps' desired end points on the plaza determined the plaza's elevation at five and a half feet below grade. "I think that it is perfectly fine," he says, and indeed, the plaza is large enough and the descent from the east is gradual enough to preclude a perception of being underground or any sense of claustrophobia.

Most problematic for the visitor is that from many vantages inside the plaza you cannot see over the star-studded Freedom Wall that rises nine feet above the plaza and spreads 85 feet wide. When you stand with your back to the Rainbow Pool and face west, the wall blocks the Lincoln Memorial and substitutes something that resembles a blank movie screen spreading very wide. From that distance the wall seems to need a foreground element, something to frame. The star concept resonates: During the war, gold stars represented family members who died in combat. But you'll only find a strong visual interest very close up in the sculptural quality of the full-relief stars, each slightly bigger than your hand, cast in stainless steel, electroplated, and affixed to a contrasting bronze background.

The journey to completion this spring began in January 1997 with the announcement that Austrian-born, Rhode Island-based St. Florian had won the competition to design the memorial. The historic Rainbow Pool, built in 1921, had been a bit of punctuation at the east end of the Lincoln Memorial landscape until 1995 when the American Battle Monuments Commission, an independent federal agency under the executive branch, selected the neglected pool as the memorial site. In answer to a program laden with constraints and demands, each entrant in the first round of the two-stage competition was asked to express his or her ideas on a single 24-inch-square board. Among the constraints were that the Rainbow Pool remain in place and that the memorial include a hall of honor, educational facilities, and an auditorium—all underground.

St. Florian, one of 408 first-stage entrants, found the site "impossible" because the pool already occupied the center. "You couldn't move the pool, you couldn't change it, you couldn't do anything to it, and yet you were asked to create a memorial there to an event that was perhaps the most significant of the twentieth century." He took as his first task not to come up with a brilliant idea of what the memorial should be but rather to solve the problem of what to do about a site that he could not build on. "From day one," he says, "I understood that I must deal with two major iconic objects, the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, and that there was no way you could add another object. It had to be a space, horizontal and open." That led to his thought of lowering the plaza.

Although meeting the competition program's demand for underground spaces gave form to his design, St. Florian did not like that concept. "It seemed inappropriate that we should honor World War II underground," he says. "I had a plaza sunken underground, but now I needed a framing device. Instead of putting the stuff underground, why not bring the ground upwards? And so I lifted the ground and created these two buffers that surrounded the memorial plaza."

These were the two principal ideas of his submission: lowering the plaza and lifting its surround. But that meant lowering the Rainbow Pool as well. St. Florian and his staff in Providence sifted through the program and found prohibitions about changing the shape of the pool or moving it, but nothing about lowering the pool. He took a calculated risk, and his proposal carried him into the competition's second phase. He and the five other finalists received 60 days to refine their concepts and assemble design and production teams. Design would count for 60 percent and team qualifications for 40 percent. "It was easy to figure out that we could have the best design and still not win the competition," St. Florian says. He selected van Sweden, Kaskey, Benson, and as the architecture and engineering firm of record, Leo A. Daly. To St. Florian's relief, the sponsors dropped the memorial's underground components. That meant he could do away with the berms from his original design, which, he now says, placed the plaza too far below grade. "When the underground spaces were eliminated from the program," he says, "we could bring the memorial back up five and a half feet below the 17th Street level, just enough so that when you are on the plaza you hardly even notice that it is lower."

St. Florian is pleased that this five and a half feet corrects one long-standing problem with the Rainbow Pool: The original waterworks—two tall vertical jets and an oval ring of canted jets that sprayed water five feet into the air—blocked the view of the Lincoln Memorial from the east. The canted sprays were turned off for nearly half a century. Now the top of the fountain is below sight lines of the Lincoln Memorial as viewed from 17th Street.

As St. Florian revised the design and presented new versions to the National Capital Planning Commission and U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, activists considering themselves protectors of the Mall's integrity moved into gear, their mounting intensity reminding some observers of the fight two decades earlier against Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial in nearby Constitution Gardens. But while the politics of the Vietnam War drove opposition to that design, issues of location, historic preservation, style, design, process, and ecology fueled opposition to the World War II memorial.

The National Coalition to Save Our Mall, a foundation-supported nonprofit organization, led the challenge, saying that the Rainbow Pool and its landscape setting should be preserved exactly as created. The coalition charged that construction would damage roots of the nearby "Olmsted elms"—trees specified circa 1920 by the Olmsted Brothers—and affect the area's water table, harming the stability of nearby structures. There were fears that the memorial would spoil the Mall's east-west vista and interrupt pedestrian flow between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Some said the design was the grandiose vision of J. Carter Brown, who chaired the Commission of Fine Arts from 1971 until his death in 2002 and publicly defended the design and championed its completion.

Meanwhile, out came the rhetorical artillery: Prominent design critics found the memorial design pompous and overblown, and some said it was a big bore. Deborah K. Dietsch, then-editor of Architecture, and The New Yorker's Paul Goldberger likened the design to the overbearing structures of Hitler's architect, Albert Speer. Opposition continued until the very last minute when the National Coalition to Save Our Mall petitioned the Supreme Court to block construction on procedural grounds. But the high court upheld a lower court's ruling, and construction began in September 2001.

The negative publicity may well have helped the memorial's sponsors raise a total of $194 million, including a $16 million federal appropriation. When construction fences came down in late April of this year, the memorial had been completed ahead of schedule at a cost $22 million less than the total raised. (The surplus is to be used for maintenance.) Dedication ceremonies were held May 29, 79 days shy of the 59th anniversary of V-J Day, war's end.

As the team's landscape architect, van Sweden had the responsibility of fitting the memorial seamlessly into the National Mall, which, he points out, is a landscape touched by Pierre L'Enfant, Frederick Law Olmsted, Andrew Jackson Downing, and Daniel Burnham. He studied Olmsted's landscape design for the Capitol and its lawn, with its sweeping open space framing monumental views and secluded glades, and he looked at the landscape that gives Washington's monumental core its coherence and at the Mall's hierarchy of open spaces. He considers the surrounding landscape as the setting for the jewel of the new memorial; both landscapes required extensive grading.

The outer borders of the memorial form a rectangle. Van Sweden and other design-team members divided the memorial's periphery into four quadrants, only one of which, the northwest corner, survived as a discrete landscape. Van Sweden designed that corner and its self-consciously named Circle of Remembrance as a quiet place; he likens it to a side chapel in a cathedral. It offers lush, low plantings now and the promise of deep shade as newly planted elms mature. It also affords unexpected views: To the northwest are Constitution Gardens and the lake, and south by southeast offers glimpses over the new memorial of the Tidal Basin and the Jefferson Memorial. Azaleas and other flowering plants around the memorial are white to symbolize peace.

To obviate fears that construction would imperil the mature elms surrounding the memorial, measures were taken to protect the roots, and few trees were lost. In any case, van Sweden points out, all of the old elms at the memorial are nearing the end of their life spans and will need to be replaced within 15 years or so. To that end, the memorial's makers selected and reserved replacements offsite and will employ them as the elms die out. The new specimens (Ulmus hollandica 'Groenveldt') will be positioned as the Olmsted Brothers office placed elms in the original drawings. "Over the years, the paths have changed—been added to or reduced here and there—and trees were placed anywhere the park service could get them in," van Sweden says. "Getting tree placements back to the original design is an important benefit."

For the 112 bronze-wreath sculptures that adorn two sides of the 56 pillars, Kaskey cast two versions: oak leaves and branches symbolizing the arsenal of democracy and wreaths of wheat sheaths suggesting the breadbasket-to-the-world role played by the United States during and immediately following the war. The wreaths, suspended on bronze brackets several inches in front of the pillars, dignify the pillars, and vertical slits in the pillars lighten their visual weight while imparting transparency to the walls around the plaza.

By far the memorial's most exuberant and subtly resonant moments are paired assemblies of columns, eagles, and wreaths within the two arches. St. Florian had designed a laurel wreath to be suspended horizontally by architectural devices. "It looked kind of like a chandelier," Kaskey says. "Friedrich asked me to design a way to hold up the wreaths in a more sculptural way. About the third day I was working on it, I thought, 'Aha! Baldacchino,' " he says, referring to Bernini's bronze four-poster canopy over the papal throne in St. Peter's Basilica. In the Washington versions, large bronze bald eagles perch on each of the columns and clutch furled bronze ribbons in their beaks. The wreaths, metaphors for victorious soldiers coming home, seem almost weightless.

Kaskey's bronzes bear an appealing handmade, slightly abstract quality, and their style is complemented by Benson's lettering on stone. Benson derived the letters from several Roman sources and made them "just a little bit blocky, like Life magazine" because, he says, "here at home, World War II was pretty much seen through Life." Benson and five other carvers inscribed virtually all of the memorial's word labels and longer quotes in situ. Many of the inscriptions span several stones, he points out, and he didn't want to pass along to setters the responsibility of aligning the blocks of chiseled stones.

The memorial sponsors say that the project, which replaced defective stormwater pipes, will reduce the amount of groundwater flowing into the Tidal Basin and that the water discharged from the site will be treated to the standards of the Environmental Protection Agency. The stability of nearby structures should be unaffected, according to the sponsors, because the memorial was constructed inside the line of a surrounding slurry wall extending from grade to bedrock, thus isolating it from surrounding groundwater.

The designers of the new memorial did not have an easy task. The National Mall is not a gravesite, a place to mourn the dead, as is Arlington National Cemetery. Nor is it a place for glory. As St. Florian says, "There is a fine line between celebration and glory. Wars must never be glorified. War is destruction, upheaval, unspeakable suffering. There are times, however, when a nation of free people is called upon to defend its democratic principles and ideals. World War II was such a moment." This memorial, then, should acknowledge a valiant and successful effort, and in that context express celebration. That it does, in an understated way.

Is the style appropriate? The memorial bears no more taint of Albert Speer and totalitarian architecture than do scores of wpa-era courthouses and post offices across the country or, closer at hand, the 1937 Federal Reserve Building on Constitution Avenue or the 1932 Folger Shakespeare Library on Capitol Hill. Should a memorial reflect the era it celebrates, in this case a time of neoclassicism and Art Deco in public architecture, or the time of the memorial's creation? I find neoclassicism appropriate for this memorial in this place.

Is it overbearing? J. Carter Brown wanted to make sure the memorial was large enough to celebrate the event but that it wasn't so big that it would dominate the space at this important point between the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument, according to van Sweden. But size should also correspond to content. Like an echoing museum gallery with too few works of art to hold your interest, the World War II Memorial resembles a very large, underfurnished room.

The important question remains: When World War II veterans are no longer around, will this place evoke their sacrifice and accomplishment, or will it seem antiquated and irrelevant? Go there and decide for yourself. Forget the protests of the Mall's self-appointed protectors and resist the conclusions of style and design arbiters. Determine if the memorial pleases your senses, inspires your respect, invites inquiry, and stirs your soul.

Client: American Battle Monuments Commission. Design team: Friedrich St. Florian, design architect; Oehme, van Sweden & Associates, landscape architect (James A. van Sweden, fasla, principal); Hartman-Cox, associate architect (George Hartman, principal); Kaskey Studio, artworks (Raymond Kaskey, sculptor); John Stevens Shop, inscriptions (Nicolas Benson, lead stone carver). Architect/engineer of record: Leo A Daly. Design and construction manager: U.S. General Services Administration. General contractor: Joint Venture Tompkins Builders/Grunley-Walsh Construction. Construction quality manager: Gilbane Building Company. Civil engineering: Earth Tech. Lighting: Horton Lees Brogden Lighting Design. Surveying: Cervantes & Associates. Geotechnical engineering/foundations: Muser-Rutledge Consulting Engineers. Mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems: Leo A Daly. Fountain consultants: cms Collaborative. Fire

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