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I Donít Understand

I donít understand. What donít I understand? I donít know. Thatís the problem.

I recognize that I canít be an expert on everything. There are only so many hours in a lifetime to study and try to absorb the language, the assumptions, the points of view, and the feelings of different fields. To know enough about some subject that I donít have to think in order to respond. Iím not sure that thereís any subject in which I can do that. I also recognize that I fake a lot. I pontificate about things that I know nothing about. Itís probably safer that way. If I knew a little bit, Iíd have to be ashamed of myself.

All this self-deprecation comes from reading an essay from the New York Times about the National World War II Memorial to be built on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Herbert Muschamp, Architecture Critic for the Times, disparages the design of the memorial, saying it "diminishes the substance of its architectural context. The design does not dare to know. It is, instead, a shrine to the idea of not knowing or, more precisely, of forgetting. It erases the historical relationship of World War II to ourselves. It puts sentiment in the place where knowledge ought to be."

He compares the effect to the current distortion of the era of World War II in the popular mind (that is, under 65) as expressed in movies like "Pearl Harbor." I havenít seen that movie itself yet, but I gather from the critics that it minimizes historical accuracy for the sake of romantic drama. The current buzzword "The Greatest Generation" supposedly describes the America of 1941. Now, that I can understand. I wasnít old enough to fight in that war, but I was old enough to absorb the romantic atmosphere generated here at home so that the country could take on what seemed impossible sacrifices. It didnít take me long, after I grew up, to recognize that for what it was. I plan to watch "Pearl Harbor," but not in order to understand history. I donít expect any scenes like some of those weíve heard described in this room. (Note: This was written for a group of seniors.)

I suppose that with a few years of architectural study I could identify different styles and different eras and the accepted relationships between cultural mind-sets and the physical forms they produce. But when I read things such as Mr. Muschampís essay, I have the feeling that he and I not only have different mind-sets, but exist in different realities altogether. I have no idea what he means when he says, ". . . the design is seriously flawed. Its classical vocabulary does not create the transcendent framework that the sponsors . . . seem to have in mind. Rather, the forms employed are charged with historical and ideological content that contradicts this apparent intention."

Itís possible, too, that nobody else understands it. On the World Wide Web, there are a number of essays by other architecture experts that take exception to Muschampís evaluation of several buildings. On the other hand, maybe itís the level of abstraction that heís using in that paragraph that loses me. Later, he gets more specific and, while I canít argue with his judgment, I can at least follow this: "The memorial's modern classical style was favored by Mussolini, Roosevelt, Stalin and other government leaders in the 1930's. Examples of this style can be found all over Washington and in many other cities with federal courthouses, post offices and other government buildings designed in the 1930's and 40's. In that limited sense, St. Florian's design is true to the events it commemorates."

I can even feel a small gut reaction to those wordsóand thatís good. It gives me incentive to look more deeply. So I went to the official Web site for the monument, and found artistsí renderings of the monument.

The site also contains this point in a page purporting to "Correct the Critics":

6. Critics claim that the design echoes the Nazi Fascist architectural language of triumph and public spectacle. Not true!

The design complements the classic style of Washington architecture. It is the language of much of the federal architecture found in Washington. It is ludicrous to claim that Nazi gigantism, which separates its brand of architecture from other periods in history, bears any relevance to the scale of the WWII Memorial, whose vertical dimensions are modest in relation to the principal visual features of the Mall.

After looking at the renderings of the monument, I understand a wee bit more of what Muschamp is saying. (Does that mean Iím gaining on this thing?)

I think heís saying, overall, that the monument should reflect how we think of World War II, not what the architects in 1940 thought monuments should look like.

As a comparison, this is what the Web site for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial says: "The . . . Memorial serves as a testament to the sacrifice of American military personnel during one of this nation's least popular wars. The purpose of this memorial is to separate the issue of the sacrifices of the veterans from the U.S. policy in the war, thereby creating a venue for reconciliation."

If Viet Nam was one of our least popular wars, World War II must have had about the most popular supportóafter Pearl Harbor, at least. Does that affect what we now need to remember about it? Should it be about our national aggrandizing, or about the human cost of it all?

Muschamp compares the WWII memorial to three other examples of postwar architecture: the East Wing of the National Gallery, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, about which he says, "All three designs developed abstract geometry into complex formal vocabularies. The forms enabled them to express complex ideas. As a result, they honored the Enlightenment tradition of daring to know. They renewed the meaning of the neo-Classical buildings around them."

Now, even if I donít know anything about architecture, I can at least understand that meaning can be expressed without words. The memorial certainly has a different feeling to it than the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where the Wall seems to say it all. And of course itís nothing like the Holocaust Museum, in appearance or intention. From the renderings Iíve seen, now that Iíve thought about it, the monument, impressive as it is, does seem to lack something. Iíll have to visit it in person to know for sure, but I wonder if Iíll get the same profound sense of personal relationship that I get from, for instance, the Arlington Cemetery. If it doesnít hit me in the gut the way the Viet Nam Memorial doesówhat will we have lost?

Maybe Herbert Muschamp and I have something in common, after all. At least his words, already quoted here, take on a new level of meaning for me:

"The design does not dare to know. It is, instead, a shrine to the idea of not knowing or, more precisely, of forgetting. It erases the historical relationship of World War II to ourselves. It puts sentiment in the place where knowledge ought to be."

 

Donald Skiff, June 9, 2001

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