The World War II Memorial, recently unveiled on the Mall in Washington, D.C., embodies the term “neo”—Neoclassic, neo-Modern, even neo-Postmodern—and inhabits a nether region in the landscape between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. While its axial placement and the prominence of its subject called for greatness, unfortunately the nation has received a compromised memorial muddled in its architectural language and tamely settled into the site.
The site is pleasant enough. On a sunny May day, tourists had already found the Kodak moments in all the cardinal directions, including a stunning view out toward the Lincoln Memorial beside a cascading waterfall. The fountains splashed on cue; taxicabs disgorged newcomers and a few veterans, who pointed out the states on the 56 pylons anchoring each end of the display. The crowds smiled at architect Friedrich St. Florian’s design.
It could have been more. This memorial deserves our scrutiny because it commemorates the 20th century’s great moral battle for the future of civilization—a conflict that mobilized worldwide resources toward a common end and cost millions of lives. After the human sacrifice, and the lands despoiled, such events call for majestic resolution. Instead, rather than represent confrontation, the World War II memorial resorts to large-scaled, neat symmetries, tying up opposing forces into a bow and leaving future generations with no clues to actual events. What a lost opportunity.
The fault partially lies in confusion of historic precedent and the principles that underlie historic expression. It’s not about employing Classicism: Builders in Washington have reinterpreted classicism for more than 200 years, adapting canonical dictates to era and need. Having chosen a mode, in this case the ensemble cries for a clear voice—of Baroque genius, for example. In Bernini’s hands, human engagement and triumph might have been rendered by godlike, overscaled forms rising from the water, or horses thundering through the spray, all movement, light, action, and poetry.
Instead, the memorial lacks authoritative identity. The twin locii of war have been reduced to opposing pavilions representing the Atlantic and Pacific theaters, which merely bookend the public space. Lining the pond, the surrounding pylons seem likewise devoid of meaning or emotional resonance, merely listing in a prosaic way the states and territories involved.
Architectural language appears to be complicit in this vacuous amalgam. The pavilions have been reduced to simple masses, reminiscent of Neoclassical Modernism from the 1930s, devoid of architectural ornament save naming. The truncated stone pylons have been cut to accept metal wreaths that hang from each column. Interwoven between them, a bronze rope by the artist Ray Kaskey provides ornamental respite from the severity, finding odd resolution in huge metal sculptures uncomfortably housed in the twin pavilions at each end. Four eagles in each pavilion hold a wreath, oppressed by a roof hovering too close overhead. Rather than triumphant, these Postmodern national raptors appear caged and cowed.
Although architectural record criticized the original plans for the World War II Memorial, the finished project arrives at a moment poignant with international significance. We reassert that powerful design can affect the human psyche, reflect our values, and lift us to remembrance and reflection. Certainly the Washington Monument, in its sheer scale and unapologetic geometry, anchors the entire capital. The Lincoln Memorial, through figurative sculpture and actual words, evokes nobility of spirit; the Vietnam Memorial, pain through absence and abstraction. We should have asked for heroism from the most significant physical artifact poised between them, the last great monument to be placed on our own great lawn. Not a neo-memorial.