The American Enterprise Institute responds to Ben Adler's commentary about a recent forum on memorial designs.
In the recent commentary “Modernism Takes a Beating at Forum on Memorial Design,” Ben Adler casts our panel discussion, “Monumental fights: The Role of Memorials in Civic Life,” co-hosted by the National Civic Art Society, as an attack by conservative “curmudgeons” on architectural Modernism. “The event served as a reminder that certain people will always revile Modernism for both ideological and aesthetic reasons,” Adler writes.
Adler is correct that the panel was unanimous in its disapproval of Frank Gehry’s designs for the Eisenhower Memorial. However, he is wrong to attribute these objections to a reactionary, knee-jerk anti-Modernism.
Adler cites in evidence of his argument Gary Schmitt’s critique of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Yet, in his opening remarks, Schmitt praised the memorial’s design as “quite striking and artistically coherent,” while arguing that “as a memorial, it failed the basic task of memorializing the virtues and sacrifices made by those who had served and died in that war.” This is clearly not a statement against Modernism as a style, but rather a criticism of Lin’s decision to make the nation’s grief and regret the central message of the memorial. (Roger Scruton, the other panelist who discussed the Vietnam Memorial, also tempered his criticism with praise, noting that “it has a power to it.”)
Further complicating the “conservative curmudgeon” line, panelist Michael J. Lewis, a professor of architecture at Williams College, has publicly praised Lin’s design for its “sublime abstraction” while tweaking the more traditional Frederick Hart “Fighting Men” sculpture for its literalness. Certainly, no one on the panel would agree with the hyperbolic statement that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is, in Adler’s words, “a contemptible failure.”
Adler expresses befuddlement that the panel would criticize the classically inspired National World War II Memorial. “The irony…is that even when these curmudgeons get what they want, they remain unhappy,” he writes. But none of the panelists subscribe to the simple-minded notion that classical design a good memorial makes. Instead, the panelists offered a much more nuanced take on why memorials fail or succeed—one in which the “Classicism-vs.-Modernism” battle was largely irrelevant.
For example, Diana Schaub’s remarks (recently reprinted in The Weekly Standard) only briefly alluded to the controversies over the Martin Luther King and Dwight Eisenhower memorials before offering a thoughtful history of the Lincoln Memorial and its 1876 precursor, The Freedmen’s Monument. Schaub argued that The Freedmen’s Monument has been largely forgotten in favor of the Lincoln Memorial because, in “missing the element of black dignity and equality,” it “spoke to the past as an expression of gratitude, but not to the future as a model for emulation.”
In defending architectural Modernism, Adler falls into the very trap he warns against. We agree with panelist Bruce Cole that “a Modernist architect could create the proportion, order, stability, and balance needed to make an effective memorial.” (This was no empty concession as Cole went on to cite specific examples, including the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme and the Normandy American Cemetery Visitor Center.) But just because something is “bold and different” doesn’t make it a good memorial.
Readers may disagree with the panelists about the merits of Gehry’s design, but we encourage them to judge their arguments for themselves and watch the panel online.
Gary Schmitt and Cheryl Miller are, respectively, director and program manager of the American Enterprise Institute's Program on American Citizenship.