Thursday, March 14, 2002

The World War II Memorial Triumphs Over Elitism

Among the things The New York Times recently saw fit to print was Herbert Muschamp’s wildly over the top rant against Friedrich St. Florian’s design for the National World War II Memorial, "New War Memorial Is Shrine to Sentiment.” In it, Muschamp, the arbiter of architectural taste for the Times, inadvertently makes the most persuasive argument yet for the design’s appropriateness.

The tension that defined the 20th century and found its most violent expression in World War II was over the question of whether nations governed by common people could compete and survive in the modern age against those ruled by an “enlightened” elite. The strident opposition to the Memorial by a vocal minority proves that that argument is not entirely settled in some circles.

Fittingly, Muschamp cites I.M Pei’s East Wing of the National Gallery as an example of architecture on the National Mall a bit more to his liking. Indeed the East Wing has enjoyed great critical acclaim since its opening in 1979. Yet the East Wing, with its brutal angularity, is among the least appealing buildings in the capital to tourists and other visitors, quite unlike its quietly dignified neighbor, John Russell Pope’s National Gallery of Art to which people naturally flock to sit on its steps and enjoy its colonnades.

Of course, Pope’s building received nothing but scorn from the architectural establishment of the time. Because it was a modern structure wrapped in a classical facade it was labeled inauthentic, a copy of period style. Yet it was and still is one of the most beautiful buildings in America. Its symmetry and reserve are far more inviting to common people than Pei’s showy dissonance.

Muschamp articulates today the same contempt for popular taste that greeted Pope’s design. St. Florian’s Memorial is “sentimental”, “simulated”, and “a permanent movie set.” He feels that the design is “being foisted upon us.” The question is, who is “us?” Opinion polls show the design to be very popular with the public. Moreover, it is overwhelmingly popular with the veterans the Memorial is meant to honor.

Muschamp cites other examples of architecture on The Mall that he approvingly says, “challenge the status quo.” They are, of course, Maya Lin’s minimalist ode to defeatism and James Ingo Freed’s deliberately brutal Holocaust Museum. Aside from Freed’s creation, which is meant to disturb, Muschamp’s favorites are harsh, discordant examples of the same mid-century esthetic that blights our urban landscape. Far from challenging anything, Muschamp’s modernism is the status quo. The glass and concrete boxes that disfigure our cities and render the skylines of Melbourne and Toronto and every place in between indistinguishable from Atlanta is the curse of architecture that hold common people in contempt.

Not that any design changes will satisfy the cadre of World War II Memorial critics. What troubles them most is what the triumphal National World War II Memorial signifies. It reminds us that there are times when state sponsored violence is justified, that war is sometimes the only means of achieving a noble goal, and that those who advocate peace at any price only encourage tyrants to bid up the cost of conflict.

Finally, Muschamp’s article descends into sneering references to shopping malls, Steven Spielberg and Ronald Reagan -- a shrill and unmistakable rallying cry to the enlightened to rise up in opposition. But it is too late. The memorial as designed will in all likelihood be built, hopefully before the last veteran dies. The clamor will in time fade and arguments against its design will grow ever more obscure and incomprehensible. When that happens future generations of common Joes visiting the National World War II Memorial will enjoy one last triumph over 20th Century elitism.

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