The New World War One Memorial in Washington, DC

Earlier this year, the US World War One Centennial Commission announced the selection of its design for the new World War One memorial in Washington, DC. The plan, entitled “The Weight of Sacrifice,” consists of a low 137 foot wall covered in soldier’s quotations and relief sculptures, as well as a free-standing bronze (the “Wheels of Humanity”) and the pre-existing statue of General John Pershing that already stood on the site, the current Pershing Square.

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It’s got to be tough to be a memorial designer in today’s world. Be grand without being too grandiose (the World War Two memorial went a little overboard on that one). Be solemn without being mournful (that might suggest that somewhere in the past, mistakes were made, and this is a memorial not a history lesson). Be inclusive (Sandra Pershing on the memory of her grandfather-in-law: “He valued the service of all: African-Americans, women, countless immigrants who wore our country’s uniform, the volunteer ambulance drivers, the support staffs, the nurses”) without being so inclusive as to suggest the existence of dissenting voices.

“The Weight of Sacrifice,” by architect Joe Weishaar and sculptor Sabin Howard, sits in the somewhat-benighted middle ground between all those demands. There’s the low wall that seems de rigeur post-Maya Lin, but also both free-standing and relief figurative sculpture. There’s nothing to unsettle the visitor, but also nothing too overtly celebratory.

Needless to say, there are a lot of people it’s not going to impress. Washington Post architecture critic Philip Kennicott lambasted all the finalists in a column right before the selection was announced:

Something has clearly gone wrong not just in the design competition, but also more fundamentally in the language of memorialization prevalent today. It is, in a word, exhausted. The same cliches keep recurring, including the weird numerological connection between the number of dead and some architectural or landscape element; the confusion of virtues to be honored (honor, heroism, diversity, national pride, family, sacrifice); and a tendency to the extremes of clutter on the one hand and barrenness on the other.

He’s a little softer on the final design talking to PBS NewsHour after the announcement (“The best thing about this design is the simplicity of it and the fact the designer has been sensitive to the existing parks’ sense of an oasis in the city”), but not by much.

Honestly, it seems like a hard row to hoe. In the US, at least, there’s no way back after the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Memorials are supposed to emote in their very structure now. On the other hand, just what to emote, and how, is never very clear. Needless to say, there are those insisting that the formal language of the turn of the century is all we have ever needed for this, thank-you-very-much. It’s worth remembering, though, that the first round of memorials for World War One broke with that tradition in many ways too. The Cenotaph in Whitehall was wildly unusual, a temporary plinth with none of the appropriate symbolism for a war memorial. Lutyen’s Thiepval Memorial broke new ground too. So did the idea of stadiums and halls as war memorials in their own right.

In the meantime, I suppose everyone will keep muddling through. More than thirty years and far too many wars after the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the time might be ripe for a new language of commemoration

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