by Paul Goldberger, Vanity Fair, August 2012
The Eisenhower Memorial is hardly the first monument or memorial to be the center of architectural controversy. The Washington Monument, Robert Mills’s eloquently simple obelisk, was left unfinished for more than 20 years in the mid-19th century, a victim of politics, money problems, and the Civil War, but also arguments over whether Mills’s design was the best way to commemorate Washington, and even whether a democracy should be honoring any individual, no matter who he was, with a piece of monumental public architecture. (Thankfully, an early proposal to honor Washington with a huge equestrian statue of him in Roman dress was dispensed with.) In the 1930s, John Russell Pope’s round, columned Jefferson Memorial, the epitome of the classicism advocated by the National Civic Art Society, was delayed for years by debates over whether Jefferson, a remarkable intellect and himself an architect, would have considered it both unoriginal and pompous.
Of course, no one ever pretended that Henry Bacon’s great Lincoln Memorial represented Lincoln himself—if anything, the Lincoln Memorial’s power comes from Bacon’s brilliance at distilling the idea of Lincoln, and not his persona, into physical form. Completed in 1922, the Lincoln Memorial is a temple to democracy and to the idea of the union—far more than to Lincoln himself. And its architecture, sometimes described simply as based on a Greek temple, is in fact much more. It is really a daring re-interpretation of classicism, the Parthenon reimagined as a bold 20th-century structure.
Our track record with national memorials in more recent years is decidedly mixed. There is one triumphant success: Maya Lin’s great Vietnam Veterans Memorial, finished in 1982, which proves beyond a doubt that abstraction, when well conceived and well executed, is capable of communicating deep emotion to all—a critical fact, given the argument so often made by architectural traditionalists that modern design is an “elite” pursuit incapable of speaking to the common man.
The World War II Memorial, on the other hand, by the architect Friedrich St. Florian, finished in 2004, is a pompous catalogue of classical elements, less a creative re-interpretation of classicism than a tired, heavy-handed recapitulation of it. And of the latest Washington tourist attraction, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, the less said the better: whatever virtues its cherry trees and quotations from King’s speeches inscribed on stone may have are undercut by the gargantuan representational statue by the sculptor Lei Yixin that makes King look like a tin-pot dictator.