The Plague of New ANTI-Monuments

Article excerpt

A thick fog of political correctness envelopes commemorative design in Washington.

In Our Nation's Capital

The monuments Americans see when they visit their capital are bound to affect how people think about the nation's history. Unfortunately, the considerable number of important memorials recently built, or being built, in Washington, D.C., may ultimately do little more than make visitors want to cry.

In 1995, the late Frederick Hart proposed placing a triumphal arch in the traffic circle across the Arlington Memorial Bridge from the Lincoln Memorial. The arch would serve as the site of a World War II memorial, whose construction has been a topic of lively debate for years. Writing in the Washington Times, Hart noted that "a degree of mass and verticality are the key elements in making a monument that attempts to raise our spirits to something higher than ourselves," and he pointed out that Washington is the only major western capital lacking a great commemorative arch.

But ask the designer ultimately selected to design the World War II memorial about Hart's idea and he dismisses it, not for aesthetic reasons but because of historical associations with the Arc de Triomphe and Napoleon. "We have a different attitude toward war" architect Friedrich St. Florian told me. "Napoleon didn't know how many soldiers he lost. We know exactly how many. We are very much aware of the sacrifice."

In his phobia against glorifying war, St. Florian seems unable to appreciate the legitimacy of glorifying the men who confront the torments of war to defend our liberties. Many members of Washington's cultural elite are similarly afflicted. As a result, the World War II memorial--the most important monumental project Washington has seen in decades, both because of the event being marked and the memorial's location on the Mall's major axis--is shaping up as a fiasco.

It will be built between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, a location which excludes a dramatic, vertical design such as Hart recommended because nobody wants those two landmarks to suffer any competition. St. Florian has produced a horizontal, landscape design--he has, in essence, designed a place rather than a monument--that accommodates the prevailing preference for low-key, anti-heroic, "contemplative" memorials. The architect has resorted to a stripped, modernized, ersatz-classical idiom that was popular back in the 1930s.

St. Florian does avoid the high modernist pretensions that were in vogue a generation ago. In the 1960s, for instance, there was a megalomaniacal modernist scheme for a National Plaza in the vicinity of the Treasury Department and White House. Space was to be made for this deliriously overscaled project in part by demolishing two venerable hotels, the Willard and the Washington. This plan fortunately came to naught, and the two hotels are still with us.

But what has replaced these grandiose modernist visions? A series of new monuments and major buildings for our nation's capital that are painfully crimped by the absurd notion that traditional architectural styles are obsolete. The aesthetic qualities and emotional resonance of these new monuments are depressingly low.

Take the FDR Memorial, dedicated in 1997. Its designer, Lawrence Halprin, is a landscape architect, and his project sprawls over more than seven acres in Washington's West Potomac Park. It consists mainly of four large outdoor enclosures defined by massive walls of brownish/purplish granite, each enclosure corresponding to one of FDR's four terms in office. Halprin's massive, quarry-faced walls suggest a sort of primordial ruin. These crude structures shelter representational sculpture of astonishingly poor quality, as well as an array of FDR quotations. Landscape elements include numerous waterfalls and cascades running over and through the Cyclopean walls.

The dismal statue of FDR himself is not set on a pedestal, and it hardly inspires reverence the way Daniel Chester French's nearby image of Lincoln does. …