America deserves a National World War II Memorial that is better than this. Maybe we can tear it down and start again.
While the dedication ceremony for the new National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., is still to come -- its slated for May 29, 2004, at the start of the Memorial Day weekend -- the memorial itself opened to the public several weeks ago. An oblong $175 million plaza, flanked by two 43-foot-tall arched gates and 56 granite columns, each holding a pair of bronze wreaths, surrounding an oval reflecting pool with fountains, it is the strangest, ugliest major memorial in Washington.
The new monument feels as if a Fascist architect had designed a food court for the Mall of America, and then accidentally shipped it to Washington, where it was installed on a 7.4-acre plot located on the National Mall between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.
A memorial to some of Americas greatest war-time heroes should provide a place for contemplation and appreciation of the sacrifices made by those who fought for the freedom of not just America but of the entire world. And, as vague and jingoistic as this notion may sound, such a memorial should look and feel American. It should be a place that, when experienced, gives rise to thoughts of country and service.
Nothing like that can be found here. The plentiful fountains and running water create a din that drowns out all but the loudest conversations, let alone allow quiet contemplation. (This is not the gently running water that contributes to the serene spaces at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorial. These fountains belong at your local Six Flags.) The wide open space in the center of the memorial allows it to serve as a run-around for the children of visitors, further destroying the opportunity for introspection. Only the size of the $175-million memorial is even remotely American -- the design, by Friedrich St. Florian (whose first large-scale project was the Providence Place Mall, according to Los Angeles Times critic Christopehr Knight), puts a premium on size. This is a memorial meant to be photographed, not absorbed.
In fact, there is nothing about the memorial design that seems to have much to do with World War II. Sure, there are some engravings that talk about the war, but is there anything about granite pillars and arches and bronze wreaths that tie them specifically to World War II? This architecture could commemorate those who lost their lives fighting on behalf of the Revolutionary War, or Greenpeace, or virtually anything else. There is no history here. In fact, this memorial is an amalgamation of designs -- it incorporates bits of several other D.C. memorials and little that is unique to the National World War II Memorial.
The memory of the sacrifices Americans made in World War II lives on in the minds of people who experienced the war. Ideally, a worthy memorial extends memory beyond the generation that lived with the people and through the event being memorialized. (Is there a better example of this, anywhere, than the Vietnam Veterans Memorial?). Its a national shame that the National World War II Memorial doesnt come close to accomplishing this goal.