The Magazine


What we built then, what we build now

Mar 5, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 24 • By CATESBY LEIGH
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Rodney Mims Cook Jr. is an Atlanta architect and philanthropist with an idea for the nation's capital. He wants to erect in Washington, D.C. -- on the traffic circle where Pennsylvania Avenue meets the Anacostia River -- a privately funded triumphal arch celebrating the new millennium.

Rather than distinguishing itself from Washington's great architectural tradition -- the tradition that gave us the Capitol, the Library of Congress, and the White House -- this new arch would unambiguously build on that tradition. Cook envisions the sort of grand urban gesture that would have pleased the man who conceived the plan for our "federal city" more than two hundred years ago, Pierre-Charles L'Enfant.

By way of contrast, consider the World War II Memorial soon to be built a few miles away on the main east-west axis of the Mall in Washington, between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.

You would think that a memorial for World War II would be an emphatically vertical mass -- a triumphal arch, say -- situated on a major axis. One appropriate site would be the traffic circle at the Virginia end of the Arlington Memorial Bridge. Scott Circle, six blocks up Sixteenth Street from the White House, would be another. But the Mall itself boasts a symmetrical arrangement of monumental structures, with the Washington Monument halfway between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial, which no one wants to disrupt. A poor choice of location has thus hamstrung the World War II Memorial's design from the outset, mandating an essentially horizontal, landscape-oriented scheme.

Architect Friedrich St. Florian's design sinks the oval-shaped Rainbow Pool (located at the east end of the Reflecting Pool) six feet below ground, creating a sunken plaza larger than a football field. The plaza is terminated at its north and south ends by what the design calls "triumphal arches." Symbols of victory in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters, these boxy structures are actually pavilions, aligned with rows of elms ranging along the Reflecting Pool.

Fifty-six free-standing pillars extend from the pavilions in semicircular formations. Like the piers supporting the pavilions, these seventeen-foot pillars boast unsightly rectilinear voids intended to convey a sense of openness at the site. However novel their treatment may be, the pillars merely clutter up the design. When viewed from Seventeenth Street, they will detract from the sense of imposing scale the pavilions, which are 42 feet tall, are supposed to convey. The trees enveloping the pavilions will have the same effect. In a sense, the World War II Memorial is respectful of the timeless architecture that defines Washington's monumental core: It fears to intrude; it wants to be a monument without imposing on the existing landscape.

In a way, the World War II Memorial harks back to the modernized or "stripped" classical buildings that went up during the 1920s and 1930s in Berlin, Moscow, Rome, and elsewhere. These buildings generally betray an emphasis on flat, rectilinear masses, less use of ornament, and a resulting diminution of the interplay of light and shade characteristic of classical architecture. After World War II, of course, triumphant modernism swept such feeble ersatz classicism aside. The idea was that a new architecture would replace traditional practice.

But things didn't work out that way. What transpired is merely the suppression of the formal language that had endured for 2,500 years -- with nothing to replace it. The World War II Memorial, however retrograde it might seem to modernist iconoclasts, is one example of the depressing confusion we suffer these days. There are plenty of others:

* Norfolk, Virginia, has a new Armed Forces Memorial featuring twenty bronze sculptures of letters home from men and women killed in America's wars, with the letters scattered across a park pavement as if by a breeze. It is a case study in rank sentimentality.

* Across the state, a National D-Day Memorial, nearing completion outside the town of Bedford, boasts what may be the world's first attempt at an Art Deco triumphal arch. Perched on a scenic hilltop and rising to a slightly greater height than St. Florian's pavilions, this inappropriately stark, dark structure of polished deep-green granite is crowned not with figure sculpture, but with baffling abstractions of houses with steeply pitched roofs. Such roofs, it happens, are found in the towns of Normandy. The "houses," moreover, are alternately striped black and white to evoke the identifying stripes on the Allied aircraft which supported the invasion.