Friday, June 15, 2012


Washington D.C.

Washington DC is - to put it mildly - an important city. It is the seat of government of the US of A, the home of the POTUS, and the business of more or less running the western world goes on there daily. It is also the central capital for that diverse mixture of people that make up the Untied States. What to say, then, about a visit to that city? There is a lot of history here - the city on The Potomac has seen a great deal of the making of the United States. George Washington lived nearby. Abraham Lincoln was shot in Ford’s Theatre. The Kennedys are buried at Arlington. The Pentagon was a 9/11 target. 

It is, as is befitting for the capital of such a proud nation, a city of monuments. On my recent tourist-tour of a few of these, I was surprised at how recently built some are. They each have their own flavour, too - you might almost say ‘personality’. Join me a tour of just a few.

President Lincoln

My favourite remains the Lincoln Memorial. It’s stature and proportions, its site at the end of The Mall, perched above the Reflecting Pool (sadly under ugly renovation when I was there), give the whole thing a certain pomp and presence. You can see the favoured neo-classical columns, and inside the great oversized statue of Lincoln seated, illustrating in stone the over-sized importance of the man and his times to the psyche of the American people. Engraved in over-sized letters (another favourite trope of the monument designers here) are the words of the Gettysburg Address on one wall, and Lincoln’s Second Inauguration Speech on the other, each in its own way able to transport you back instantly to the agonising time of the Civil War. But best of all, it is on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that the people still gather to demonstrate and protest. It was here that Martin Luther King Jr made his extraordinary “I have a dream...” speech. The Lincoln Memorial is thus a real and vital part of the people’s experience, not just a great white monolith.

The Lincoln Memorial opened in 1922.

The beautifully-sited Jefferson Memorial

Further away, around the other side of the shore of the Tidal Pool, stands the also-neo-classical Jefferson Memorial. The white rotunda with its massive columns sits divinely surrounded by trees, aloofly perched across the water. Visually this is the most beautiful of the monuments, especially seen from afar - which it usually is, since it is quite a long walk to get to it, and an even longer one when you can’t get a cab back (there’s water on one side and a freeway on the other). Inside the ring of columns are engraved words from the Constitution, and there stands a double-life-sized statue of the slave-owning and constitution-writing president. But aloof he remains: a small sign at the Jefferson Memorial reminds visitors that this is a place of solemn contemplation and there are to be “No Demonstrations”. Not that anyone could get a bus there and back anyway.

The Jefferson Memorial opened in 1943, with the bronze statue added in 1947.

Martin Luther King, Jr Memorial

Words worth carving in stone
The newest - indeed, freshly-minted - memorial is to Martin Luther King Jr. It sits on the banks of the Tidal Pool, in fresh white stone. It was completed only this year, and to the credit of its designers it does dispense with the neo-classical grandeur. It does, however, go overboard with the “words carved in stone” theme. Not that I’m criticising this concept: I like to see great words preserved, and with tourists taking their pictures in front of some of the most inspirational sayings of the twentieth century, those words wing their way into homes and iPhones everywhere. In the case of the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial, there was a bit of a tizz over one of the carved-in-stone sayings, however. It seems someone paraphrased the great man a little too freely. The words in question read “I was a drum-major for justice, peace and righteousness”, but there are cries to re-carve it, not a simple matter, I'd think.

The words are a paraphrased version of a longer quote by King: 
"If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter." 
Maya Angelou, a consultant on the memorial wants the carving changed: "The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit...It makes him seem less than the humanitarian he was...It makes him seem an egotist." She also pointed out, "The 'if' clause that is left out is salient. Leaving it out changes the meaning completely."

The Martin Luther King Jr Memorial opened in August 2011. 

Another great Presidential Memorial sits quietly and unassumingly under the trees on the banks of the Tidal Pool: the Franklin D Roosevelt Memorial. Despite it’s quiet and contemplative personality, the Memorial is really quite massive - it spreads itself under the tress through about five different “rooms” relating to different phases of the President’s leadership. Grey slate stone, life-sized bronze statues and lots of pools and waterfalls are the furniture of the rooms. You can see men in the depression queuing for work, there’s his wife Eleanor, and there’s FDR in his wheelchair, with his faithful Presidential Dog at his feet. 

The Depression era.

The Franklin D Roosevelt Memorial opened in 1997.

The Marine Corps War Memorial

But aside from Presidents and other Great Men, there are memorials to war dead, and these need to be moving, don’t you think? The rather recent WWII Memorial on the Tidal Pool (completed in 1995) doesn’t really do much for me: it returns to the white stone an neo-classical columns, and adds some stone wreaths for good measure. The Iwo Jima Memorial (correctly, The Marine Corps War Memorial), situated away from The Mall at Arlington, famously and massively depicts brave soldiers in action, their and our focus on the Stars and Stripes they are holding and defending. The Iwo Jima Memorial was completed in 1954. 

The Korean War Memorial
The Korean War Memorial is, I think, successful, if such a word is appropriate for a war memorial. Under the trees on the Tidal Pool, not far from Lincoln and his Civil War reminders, a dozen or so double-life-sized bronze soldiers struggle through the soft Washington greenery, which stands in for the mud and jungle of the Korean Peninsular. They are wearing helmets and great waterproof capes, their faces are serious to the point of anguish, they are intensely focussed, some looking around them cautiously, others with their eyes on the American flag that is their objective. The Korean War is said to have been fought by American soldiers “in a country they had never heard of, for a people they never knew”. 

The Korean War Memorial opened in 1992.

The Vietnam Memorial

But for special solemnity and very low key impact, nothing beats the Vietnam Memorial. Fittingly somehow, for a war that was after all lost, is is more or less buried in the ground. It carves its way into parkland just beyond Lincoln, two triangles of shiny black marble, engraved with the names of every American soldier that was lost in that war. Not only is its sombre personality in keeping with the subject it commemorates, it is truly a people’s monument. Families come here and look for the names of their relatives. There are instructions on how to find the name you are looking for - there are, after, a great many of them. They take rubbings of the name, a simple and old-fashioned thing to do, but tactile and personal. They leave little American flags planted by the names of their loved-ones. They bring their children to see the names. It is a relatively recent war (though sadly there have been others since then) and these visits are moving. A successful design, I think - and, interestingly, a design produced by a 21 year old Yale architecture student, Maya Lin. She submitted the design for her course and managed a lukewarm B; but submitted it to the design competition and won. Perhaps her professors didn’t think it had enough classical columns for Washington. But it certainly makes the most of the engraved words. 

The Vietnam memorial also includes a statue of Three Soldiers, and the Women's Memorial, partly as a result of the controversy that surrounded the original design. Here's what Wikipedia has to say about that:
The unconventionality of the selected design was very controversial, especially among veterans. Many publicly voiced their displeasure, calling the wall "a black gash of shame." Two prominent early supporters of the project, H. Ross Perot and James Webb, withdrew their support once they saw the design. Said Webb, “I never in my wildest dreams imagined such a nihilistic slab of stone.” James Watt, Secretary of the Interior under President Ronald Reagan, initially refused to issue a building permit for the memorial due to the public outcry about the design.
Lin believes that if the competition had not been "blind", with designs submitted by number instead of name, she "never would have won". She received harassment after her ethnicity was revealed. Lin defended her design in front of the United States Congress, and eventually a compromise was reached. A bronze statue of a group of soldiers and an American flag was placed off to one side of the monument as a result.
Once the design was realized, the overwhelming majority of the design's critics came to appreciate the simple beauty and emotional power of the wall, and such controversy quickly evaporated. In the words of Scruggs, "It has become something of a shrine."

The Vietnam Memorial opened in 1982.

"Something of a shrine"

Iwo Jima image from:

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