Thursday, November 19, 2009

In Praise of the National Mall

The National Mall is best experienced not on a Middle School field trip, but in adulthood, and not amidst sweaty throngs in August, but alone on a mist-heavy Autumn morning, with half the yellow leaves on the trees and half on the ground. I had the sober pleasure of such an experience today. Originally envisioned in L'Enfant's early plan for the city, the Mall was perfected by Charles McKim, Frederick Law Olmstead, and Daniel Burnham - a dream team of architecture and landscape design.

Night at the Museum: Battle at the Smithsonian has regretfully ensured the cliché status of the Lincoln Memorial for a new generation. All the more reason, therefore, to redeem it by looking more closely, considering the fact of its near perfection. Daniel Chester French's Lincoln sits, about to stand. The gesture of his right hand signals a generous measure of compassion, and on the right wall are his tender words from Gettysburg. Lincoln's left hand signals determination, a fist nearly tense in resolve yet not clenched in anger. Illustrating this on the left wall is his Second Inaugural, for my money, the finest speech in American history. Lincoln's gentle eyes and face combine the temper of both hands in a look of humble certitude upheld by the providence to which he deferred.

To move down the stairs to the Mall itself is to step onto a synecdoche of America itself. Fittingly, the physical space seems held together by the Memorial to the man who held the nation together. But were it not for the General Washington Memorial, which looms over everything, there would be nothing to hold together. While we can hope for a John Adams Memorial, it would be wrong to say the first generation of Americans don't have their place here.

Moving from Lincoln towards Washington's presiding obelisk, the silver figures of the Korean War Memorial to the right catch the eye. They walk as would anyone anticipating battle, afraid. The figure to the rear greets the oncomer with a look of controlled terror. These men, so the inscription reads, "answered the call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met."

Looking across the reflecting pool, the Vietnam Memorial reads like an open scar, the great American wound that it was. I am with Nathan Glazer in proclaiming Maya Lin's design a triumph of modernism, a monument for which the very limited modern style is perfectly suited. It is spartan, yet due to one's reflection in the marble, unsettlingly interactive; conceptual, yet crystal clear in the awful message that comes with the barrage of names. Both the nearby bronze soldiers and the Nurse's Memorial (left) provide an important, albeit somewhat cartoonish, complement to Lin's design. The fear in their eyes, as they look up to an impending attack, are a reminder that the actual skies above us have seen few.

The World War II Memorial is boldly in line with Washington and Lincoln, a triumphant proclamation of laureled victory on both the Atlantic and Pacific fronts. There was much controversy over the classicism of the monument, as there was over the Jefferson Memorial, but fortunately the voice of the public won out over that of the architectural establishment (not so with the 9/11 memorial debacle). There is as little ambiguity to the World War II memorial as there was to the moral cause of the war. However, it's lack of figures (excepting Roosevelt nearby) can be contrasted it to the recently unveiled Battle of Britain Monument in London, which is perhaps too much of an indulgence in high relief sculpture - and yet it speaks. Possibly the best memorial would lie somewhere between the two designs. Meanwhile, because there are soldiers in both the Korea and Vietnam designs creating the virtual battlefield effect, it seems strange that there are none in the WWII Memorial, a fact which I suppose is compensated for by the actual veterans who visit it, for now.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Mall is its faithfulness to the original vision. Despite extraordinary pressure, this democratically essential public forum hasn't been ruined yet. The plan was realized just before brilliant but misguided modernists like Lewis Mumford could have their way. For Mumford, who hoped to sanitize the present from the past, insulating us from death, memorials were "the hollow echo of an expiring breath... completely irrelevant to our beliefs and demands." In a word: Poppycock.