Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Washington DC: Memorial Overdose and Headaches

  If its dysfunctional Congress makes headlines, it is its monuments that turn the American capital into a tourist draw. As a result, Washington DC has morphed into a shrine to Americana. Year round, museums to anything and memorials to anybody are attracting hordes of curious visitors. With over twenty memorials (of questionable architectural value) and counting, the city is facing a situation of memorial overkill.

As the dust settles over the controversial architecture and design of the Martin Luther King Memorial, a new memorial project is creating waves, offending families, upsetting the architectural world, and distracting the government. If one of America’s greatest sons deserved a memorial it must be Dwight D. (Ike) Eisenhower. Ike is both a world-class hero and for many Americans a national icon. The hero of the WW II was a five-star general, who subsequently became the 34th president of the United States of America. The decision on how best to represent Ike’s multi-talented personality and legacy by the means of a three-dimensional monument is putting Ike’s family against the world famous architect Frank Gehry, who has been selected to design the project. For this blogger who has recently visited Washington DC and dutifully took the Grand Memorials Tour, it seems that the conflict boils down to the feuding party’s diverging views on architectural style and design.

As far as Washington memorials go, there are two competing artistic thoughts: the good old-fashioned, unoriginal neoclassicism versus the modern eye-popping extravaganza and Gehry’s trade mark (e.g. the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain). Tempers have been flaring and Gehry’s initial design has been compared to “totalitarian architecture and even to something designed by Nazis and Communists”1. These over-the-top comments make this blogger cringe as she feels that a number of the most recent Washington memorials are ugly, unimaginative and pompous, very much like the projects designed by Nazi architect Albert Speer.  

The recently (2004) inaugurated World War II Memorial is a case in point. It is an eye sore and a stone monster in the pure Nazi tradition. This blogger felt emotionally disturbed as it reminded her of the grounds of the 1930s Nazi parades in Nuremberg and immortalized by Leni Riefenstahl’s film The Triumph of the Will. Although this uncomplimentary comparison is lost on younger generations, the memorial draws many visitors including WWII veterans. These frail men are wheeled to the site. It makes for a moving scene in an architecturally grotesque setting.

On the War Memorial tour, one can also visit the Korean War Memorial built in 1995. It is outstanding for its realism and visual effect. It displays nineteen human-sized emaciated soldiers, seemingly cast in a tin-looking metal. They are plodding through winter mud and their silhouette is reflected in the mirror of a long granite wall. For many Americans, the Korean War (1950-1953) is an in-between conflict. It is somehow forgotten and frequently referred as the Forgotten War. The war outcome was a dismal draw and the Korean peninsula was consequently divided in two. Because of this unfinished business, tempers occasionally flare between the Communist North Koreans and the democratic South Koreans bothering the whole region. Visitors may leave this memorial more puzzled than inspired.

The newly completed memorial to another great American, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is noteworthy for being compassion deprived. If he knew about it, Dr. King would twist and turn in his grave. His XL white marble statue is particularly incongruous; one wonders whether it was not intended to Marshal Mobuto the former dictator of Zaire.

If one memorial has beaten the odds, it is the Vietnam War Memorial (1982). The Vietnam War was very unpopular; 58,209 men and women lost their life or are still missing in action (MIA). Although controversial from the beginning, the low, sunk-in wall has managed to convey the human losses in the most unpretentious but poignant manner. The names of the victims are listed by year and in alphabetic order. Each name is followed by one or two symbols. A diamond follows the name of a dead soldier and a cross indicates a MIA. If the soldier returns alive, a circle is added to his or her name. When only remains are identified the diamond circles the cross. Among the newer memorials it is the most visited and worshipped.

The blockbuster memorials remain the “big three”, respectively dedicated to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. Washington DC’s most prominent landmark is still the tall stone obelisk to Washington, the country’s first president. The monument is now off-limits to tourists as it was damaged by the 2011 earthquake. The obelisk may be sinking and remarkably Congress has set money aside for repairs. Although Jefferson’s and Lincoln’s are architecturally worlds apart, both are paradigms of the neoclassical style. The setting of the Jefferson Memorial is particularly pleasing; its rotunda reflects in the Tidal Basin and in spring the Japanese cherry trees are in full bloom.

Washington DC is increasingly becoming a memorial Disneyland. Tourists are bused from one monument to the other; consequently the original purpose of these memorials -remembrance, tribute and respect- may be lost. It may be time for a pause in memorial building. This blogger doesn’t imply that statesmen like Dwight D. Eisenhower should be deprived of their own memorial; very much to the contrary, but some peace may be needed to ensure that outstanding Americans get the memorial they rightly deserve.

1. A Monumental Conflict, Paul Goldberger. Vanity Fair, September 2012.