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Not in Our Front Yard

Paul Goldberger
The New Yorker
August 7, 2000

In 1739, the French architect Pierre I Charles L'Enfant wrote to George Washington, offering to design the new capital for "this vast empire," as he called the United States. He laid out broad avenues and monumental government buildings, anchored by an immense open space, the Mall, running from the Capitol Building to the Potomac, with lots of room for the expressions of grandeur that he knew would come as the country grew. For most of this century, the Mall has been pretty much as L'Enfant envisioned it, but better. The view from the Capitol is punctuated only by Robert Mills's astonishing abstraction the Washington Monument, and it terminates in Henry Bacon's great classical temple, the Lincoln Memorial. Plenty of other things have been added to the Mall-gardens, museums, more memorials-but they've been placed off to the side, so that the two-mile vista remains open.

L'Enfant didn't figure on the fact that if he gave the nation a front yard someone would eventually want to take over the center of it. Since memorials have already been constructed to honor the dead of the Vietnam and Korean Wars, some veterans of the Second World War have demanded one of their own - only larger and more prominent - and they have just the place for it: seven and a half acres right in the middle of the Mall. The design calls for a sunken stone plaza ringed by fifty-six stone pillars, each seventeen feet high, and a pair of triumphal arches as high as a four-story building. One of the arches is supposed to represent the European theatre, the other the Pacific theatre, though they aren't particularly evocative of either, unless your idea of Europe is watered-down Albert Speer. And this is the simplified plan. The architect, Friedrich St. Florian, won a government-sponsored design competition for the memorial in 1996 with a scheme that was even bigger. The Commission of Fine Arts rejected that one, but it has now approved the new design-joining President Clinton, Bob Dole, Tom Hanks, and Wal-Mart, which helped to raise the hundred million dollars that will be required to build it.

It would be an aesthetic disaster for Washington if this monument were to be built, and not only because it would pave over open space made sacred by such events as Marian Anderson's 1939 recital and the civil-rights march of 1963. J The memorial has the power neither of great classical architecture, like the Lincoln Memorial, nor of pure abstract forms, like the Washington Monument. And it certainly doesn't have the originality of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which stands at the edge of the Mall and is, respectfully, invisible from a distance. These monuments communicate ideas, and everyone understands them, instantly. The Lincoln Memorial is a temple to the Union, to Lincoln's anguish, and to our own. The Washington Monument is, symbolically the axis around which the city revolves, and its singularity evokes George Washington's role in our history. The Vietnam Memorial, Maya Lin's wall of names cutting into the earth, at once acknowledges the pain of the war and honors the nobility of sacrifice. And the Iwo Jima memorial, based on the photograph of soldiers raising the American flag, celebrates heroism with the simple clarity of a Frank Capra movie, but no one who sees it forgets it. St. Florian's monument has no such drama, and it isn't beautiful as a shape. Almost all great monuments create a sense of awe, but this one looks ponderous, a bureaucrat's idea of classical grandeur. It's at once fussy and desolate.

What makes Washington remarkable isn't just LEnfant's plan. It's the counterpoint between the vast, formal spaces and the monuments, which express a degree of plain emotion that would be considered unseemly in most other capitals. Monuments - especially ones with a high emotional quotient - don't do well cheek by jowl. They aren't stores in a shopping center. The Mall is not a mall. Spacing the monuments out enhances their impact, even if it makes it harder to stroll from one to the next. It took a long time to get the Mall right; for much of the nineteenth century it was cluttered up with train tracks. It wasn't until the twenties that it began to look as it does now: the long Reflecting Pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial, balanced by the short Rainbow Pool (which would be altered by the new memorial), then open space, then the Washington Monument. It is a brilliant composition, in which the voids matter as much as the solids.

It's not that the veterans don't deserve a monument-though it is hard to imagine one more moving than Iwo Jima- and it's not that every inch of the Mall is inviolable. But the Mall as it is perfectly symbolizes everything that those who died were fighting for. To deface it in their name seems an odd way to honor them.

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