The Magazine

Monumental Loss

The unbearable lightness of the Pentagon memorial.

May 29, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 35 • By CATESBY LEIGH
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Marcantonio's memorial conforms to the classical idea of design as an intimation, in symbolic form, of a transcendent realm that endows our brief earthly sojourns with meaning. His cenotaph speaks not only to the lives lost on September 11, but to our republic's sustenance in times of trial by high ideals. And it's precisely the artistic embodiment of such idealism, employing fine materials and a humanist idiom everybody understands at an instinctive level, that would allow his Pentagon Memorial to stand for the ages.

In contrast, meaning is not intrinsic to the Beckman-Kaseman design, but rather amounts to whatever significance the visitor might happen to pin on it. Aside from the eccentric sculptural gesture of the memorial units, we are left with biographical data and environmental phenomena such as surface ripples in the pools and the gentle gurgling sound of water passing over a weir into the circulation system, or the nifty shadows cast by the paperbark maples, which exfoliate their bark, upon maturity, in a delightfully picturesque manner--and in winter shed small leaves that could make grounds maintenance a pain.

The main idea behind this design seems to be that the memorial units, with the names of their loved ones inscribed on the benches' front ends, will help the bereaved reach closure. The precedent is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall, with its multitude of names listed in the chronological order of death. But leaving aside the fact that the chevron-shaped Vietnam memorial is spatially compact, clearly focused on its vertex, and handsomely inserted in its landscape setting, it is becoming increasingly clear that the therapeutic culture's dominion over memorial design since Maya Lin's triumph has swiftly degenerated into a tyranny. This tyranny suppresses any expression of civic idealism, let alone spiritual destiny.

The therapeutic and documentary elements on the Ground Zero memorial menu include a vast, leafy plaza with waterfalls spilling into the huge twin-tower voids; a subterranean mezzanine with parapet-walls inscribed with the victims' names girding the waterfalls; a subterranean multimedia museum exceeding 100,000 square feet that includes vestiges of twin-tower foundation slabs and an exposed segment of the slurry wall that held back the waters of the Hudson when the towers collapsed; a monolithic cenotaph, with an opening to the sky punched out of one of the twin-tower pools above; and refrigerated containers with victims' unidentified remains that would be visible from an adjacent chamber reserved for family members.

At this writing, the question is how the restricted budget will modify this depressing menu, whose underground elements have raised security concerns.

In Somerset County, Pennsylvania, the competition-winning Flight 93 National Memorial design aims at connecting visitors with a vast 2,200-acre landscape surrounding the crash site, as well as putting landscape features to therapeutic use. A shiny minimalist tower with 40 aluminum wind chimes to commemorate the 40 victims will mark the entrance to the tract. A couple of miles away, a large grassy bowl will be ringed by memorial groves of maple trees (40 groves of 40 trees) and abutted by a field with the hemlock grove where the crash occurred. Visitors will view the crash site from a stark slate-paved plaza. Walls are arranged near the site to indicate the flight path.

As at Ground Zero and the Pentagon, this $57 million memorial sprawls: There is no symbolic focus;there are no heroic elements, which is unfortunate when the passengers' bravery prevented Flight 93 from wreaking havoc on Washington; and nothing transcends the natural realm, or the realm of fact.

The problem is that the memory of those who died on September 11, and the trauma the terrorist atrocities caused, is ephemeral. And these memorials--the World Trade Center Memorial is scheduled for dedication on September 11, 2009, and the Flight 93 memorial two years later--are destined to be ephemeral themselves. Beckman, who sounds like an intelligent and diligent professional, says that the Pentagon Memorial will be engineered to stand for at least 100 years--no small feat, given the inordinately complicated business of circulating, filtering, and heating the water for the pools year-round, not to mention supplying electricity for the lights inside them. One wishes the academic wisdom informing her earnest efforts were more profound, because it's going to take a whole lot less than a century for the memorial units to wear out their welcome.

At least Anderson-Austra acknowledges the longevity issue. But she comes up with a hackneyed rationalization: Down the line, the Pentagon Memorial and others of its ilk will serve as expressions of the culture of their time. In terms of enduring significance, so far as she is concerned, they need aim no higher than that. Is the public realm well served by such an outlook?

It's a small consolation that taxpayers won't foot the bill for the Pentagon Memorial, where even a $10 million maintenance endowment will be raised from private sources. (The National Park Service will be responsible for maintenance of the privately funded Flight 93 memorial, while taxpayers will be stuck with a hefty chunk of the Ground Zero memorial bill.) And what a pity that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld--who, along with his wife Joyce, has contributed $200,000 to the Pentagon Memorial Fund--signed off on the jury's decision, if only because the competition process was a travesty. With the country on the verge of war in Iraq, he obviously had more pressing concerns.

Yet the fact remains that only enlightened patronage is going to redeem public art and architecture in America from their currently debased state. The Pentagon has blown a big opportunity to exercise such patronage.

Catesby Leigh is author of the forthcoming Monumental America.