Big Battle of Words about World War II Monument

By Hanson, Gayle M. B. | Insight on the News, May 12, 1997 | Go to article overview

Big Battle of Words about World War II Monument


Hanson, Gayle M. B., Insight on the News


The World War II Memorial is being attacked as obstrusive to the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, and bearing too close a resemblance to the work of Nazi architect Albert Speer.

When former Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole stood on Washington's famed Mall on March 19 to announce his commitment to serve as chief fund-raiser for the national World War II Memorial, the decorated war hero gave a speech that resonated far beyond the Capital Beltway.

On that clear day, which he likened to a cool morning in northern Italy, the former Army lieutenant -- who paid for his heroism with a lifetime of pain and loss of the use of an arm -- spoke eloquently about the need to remember those who fought and won the greatest military conflict of the 20th century. "World War II has been called the `good war,'" Dole said, "but there is nothing good about war for those who have known the heat and hate and horror of battle. Only causes can be good, and in this war we found a cause to justify the greatest sacrifice."

Many Americans do not remember the long-ago war. However, reminded Dole, the war will live forever in the memories of those who served -- as if it happened yesterday. And, if the memory of that time looms large in history, for those who fought its battles there is a different experience. "We did not see the big picture," Dole said. "We saw the small struggles. We did not hear the call of history, we heard the voices of friends -- voices that still haunt and comfort the memory of veterans.... I can hear them as if it were yesterday, frozen in time by the intensity of the experience we shared. Forever bold. Forever determined. Forever young."

But despite the power and elegance of Dole's speech, and the best of intentions on the part of the many who have worked for years to see the World War II Memorial built, the plans and design for the memorial have become embroiled in controversy. At issue are the proposed site, midway between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, and the design of the memorial.

"Both the site and the memorial itself are completely inappropriate," says Deborah Dietsch, editor of Architecture magazine, who has emerged as one of the staunchest critics. "I think the jury picked it because it has a somewhat-classical scheme. But, and this may be an unfortunate comparison, it is very similar to the stripped-down architecture of the Nazi architect Albert Speer."

The winning design was submitted by Austrian-born architect Friedrich St. Florian, the internationally renowned former head of the architecture program at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, arguably the best in the world. Not a mere academic architect, he is at work on a $5 million multiscreen movie complex in Providence, R.I.

While there would be no representational statuary, visitors to the St. Florian edifice, which won over 400 other designs, would sit on a 7.5-acre site that also would include a renovated "Rainbow Pool." It would consist of two earth-and-stone half-circles framing the reflecting pool at the east end between the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument.

The memorial itself is to be sunk 15 feet below ground level, and earthen berms 35-feet high and covered by white rose bushes will enclose it on the north and south sides. Fifty stand-alone columns with their tops broken off are intended to represent each of the states and they will rim the half-circles within the confines of the berms. A state seal will be imbedded in front of each column. Limestone walls will back up against the berms, and plans call for inscriptions of battlefields or overseas graveyards to be sculpted into them.

In addition, the design provides for a small museum/information center to be located below ground, despite the fact that the site rests within a 50-year flood plain.

This award-winning design has been strongly criticized for being too large and complex for the site. …

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