The WW II Memorial--Yes, It Works

Roundup: Talking About History

Benjamin Forgey, in the Wash Post (April 25, 204):

The best things about the National World War II Memorial are its precise placement on the Mall and the abiding sense of place that comes with the honored location.

As sensitively designed by architect Friedrich St. Florian, the memorial frames majestic views of the Lincoln Memorial to the west and the Washington Monument to the east. It is thus securely anchored within the Mall's national narrative. World War II, the cataclysmic event that altered the 20th century, certainly deserves such recognition.

The official dedication will take place on Memorial Day, May 31, but the $174 million project is almost done -- "ahead of schedule and under budget," in the words of Gen. P.X. Kelley, chairman of the American Battle Monuments Commission. Consequently, the commission is promising a soft opening as soon as this week, though the date is not certain.

There is, to be sure, something a bit stiff about the memorial's classically inspired design. A whiff of the academic informs the relentless mirror-image march of semicircular stone pillars -- 28 to a side, each ornamented with a pair of bronze wreaths -- that define its central plaza.

St. Florian may have been thinking a bit too much of the work of Otto Wagner, the great Viennese architect of 100 years ago. The difference, I suppose, is that Wagner, with his elegant austerity, was looking forward, while St. Florian, with his memorial design, is too keen on looking back.

And, yes, there are a few other faults a reasonable critic could find with the design. Though the quotations incised in its crisp granite blocks in the main are appropriately informative and moving, the memorial makers did get carried away with words in a couple of key places.

More telling, perhaps, is the possibility that the great paved plaza, measuring 337 feet north to south, lacks a true center of gravity, a place where the enormity of the war and the sacrifices made to win it undeniably grasps your heart. The intention is there in the wall of 4,000 gold stars, each signifying 100 military deaths, centered between two low waterfalls at the western edge of the plaza. But this wall, noble in intent, does not possess quite the emotional force one might have expected or wished.

Please note, however, my hesitation. On my first visit I felt this absence strongly, yet on repeated acquaintance I became less and less troubled by it. Moving about on foot is what this memorial is designed for, and the more I paced and considered each element in its turn, the more convinced I became, emotionally and intellectually, by the totality of the place.

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