The site and the symbols of the World War II Memorial

May 27, 2004|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Granite pillars stand for the 56 states and territories of the United States at midcentury. Arches represent the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of World War II. Gold stars mark the 400,000 American lives lost.

These are a few of the elements that make the National World War II Memorial a sweeping exercise in architectural symbolism, a place where every piece of the composition is imbued with meaning.

But the most powerful symbolism is rooted in the way the memorial has been placed on the National Mall in Washington, occupying a 7.4-acre tract halfway between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Today section gave an incorrect date for the dedication of the National World War II Memorial on the Mall in Washington. The dedication will be held tomorrow at 2 p.m. Information: The Sun regrets the error.

Built by the American Battle Monuments Commission at a cost of $107 million, the memorial interrupts an open space along the Mall's central axis - in the same way that the war interrupted the peace and tranquillity of the 20th century.

Undoubtedly some will see the memorial as an unwelcome intervention that turns a prominent, placid spot into a permanent reminder of war. Yet much of its ability to symbolize what most consider the defining event of the 20th century is rooted in its high-profile location. In this architectural algorithm of symbols within symbols, the memorial is the war. Just as they didn't want the war to fade from the nation's collective consciousness, the memorial's sponsors didn't want a monument that would stand meekly to the side. Everything else flows from that reasoning.

After 17 years of planning and construction, visitors finally can judge for themselves how well the symbolism holds up. Today marks the beginning of a four-day grand opening celebration that includes a formal dedication at 2 p.m. Saturday and kicks off a summer of events honoring World War II veterans.

Planned to commemorate America's role in World War II and the war's impact on the nation, the memorial is the commission of a lifetime for Friedrich St. Florian, an Austrian-born architect who in 1996 won an international competition for the chance to design it. His goal was to create something that would fit the setting and "is commensurate with the enormity of the event."

As St. Florian sees it, there are two kinds of memorials: those that heal and are built after a tragic event such as Sept. 11 or the Oklahoma City bombing, and those that celebrate and are erected to mark an achievement or victory.

The World War II Memorial falls into the second category because it celebrates the "colossal triumph of democracy over tyranny," he said.

"There is a fine line between celebration and glory," he said during a preview last month. "War is destructive, upheaval, unspeakable suffering. There are times, however, when a free people is called upon to defend its democratic principles and ideals. World War II was such a moment ... This is not a healing memorial but a memorial that recalls the nation's finest hour."

The challenge

The architect said he entered the competition because of the challenges it represented. The suggestion that the memorial be located halfway between the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument brought howls of protest from high-minded architects and critics who insisted that the Mall was sacred ground. Yet the memorial's proponents favored the spot precisely for that reason.

"An editorial in Architecture magazine said this is an impossible site," St. Florian recalled. "You couldn't disturb the Rainbow Pool. You couldn't disturb the vistas. It would take a genius to do it. ... I was intrigued."

St. Florian worked with Leo A. Daly, the architect of record; James A. van Sweden of Oehme, van Sweden & Associates, the landscape architect; sculptor Raymond Kaskey and stone carver Nicholas Benson, among others. Their creation is not an object in space, the way many memorials are. It's a space defined by a series of objects, adorned with symbols designed to tell the story of the war and its impact on America.

Visitors to the memorial can enter from any of three directions: the ceremonial entrance off 17th Street, with steps that double as an amphitheater; or the side entrances on the north and south.

The main space, called Memorial Plaza, lies six feet below street level, to preserve sight lines between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. It's framed by the pillars, arches and other architectural pieces. At the highest point of the site is a "circle of remembrance," an intimate garden setting where small groups can meet away from the busier main plaza.

As with any monument of this scale, the memorial represents a balance between the designers' vision and the desires voiced by others. Much of St. Florian's time and energy was spent negotiating design tradeoffs, either to keep the memorial's sponsors happy or to appease its opponents. The resulting composition has the potential to disappoint as well as please. Those who wanted it to be as invisible as possible are sure to be disheartened by the amount of space it occupies. Those who wanted it to make a strong statement may be disappointed that it's not grander.

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