Slate's Timothy Noah: Why I Like the New WW II Memorial

Roundup: Talking About History

Timothy Noah, in Slate (May 24, 2004):

What is so godawful about Washington's new World War II Memorial? Not even Pappy Chatterbox, a card-carrying member of the Greatest Generation (he had a desk job in Florida, but still can't bring himself to laugh at Mel Brooks'"Springtime for Hitler") could muster any interest in seeing it during a recent visit. Like every other college graduate in America, he'd read all about what an eyesore it was. He figured it wasn't worth seeing. So did I, until I happened to drive past it and decided to take a closer look.

The memorial, set to be dedicated on May 29, has received a near-unanimous Bronx cheer from the critics."This is all stock celebration," complained Blake Gopnik of the Washington Post,"not true commemoration … [O]ur soldiers' worst enemies would have felt equally comfortable with its design." In TheNew Yorker, Paul Goldberger similarly pronounced the new monument"banal and timid, overly concerned with being well mannered." Even the Post's architecture critic, Benjamin Forgey, who rather liked the memorial after it was scaled down from an earlier, more bombastic plan, found"something a bit stiff about the memorial's classically inspired design." Just about everybody agrees with the National Coalition To Save Our Mall that the memorial"drives a wedge between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial," which previously were separated only by park land and the Reflecting Pool, and that this is a bad thing.

The famous vista of the Mall from the top of the Lincoln Memorial—the site where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his"I Have a Dream" speech—is indeed altered, slightly. The distant Washington Monument now appears, at its base, to be encircled by two white bands—the oval marble walkways surrounding the Rainbow Pool, a fountain around which the World War II Memorial was built—and, at the bands' far ends, a few vertical rectangles—the pillars that commemorate the participation in World War II of each state. It looks like a vaguely exotic necklace. Someone is bound to observe sooner or later that the most famously phallic building in our nation's capital has finally gotten laid. In any event, the feminizing effect is fairly subtle and not at all unpleasant.

As for the neoclassicism, well, what's the matter with it? Pierre L'Enfant's Mall and its environs are studded, for better or worse, with neoclassical buildings, and the World War II Memorial (unlike a disastrous but widely praised planned addition by Frank Gehry to the Corcoran Museum) harmonizes with that environment. In particular, the memorial relates nicely to a nearby monument to Washington, D.C.'s World War I dead, a handsome (if unassuming) Greek temple erected in the early 1930s....

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