Half-a-mile to the south, a small and bespectacled man in a wheelchair grins patiently. A young woman wraps her arm around his neck and snaps a selfie. If he seems a bit awkward and out of place, it’s because he is. Lawrence Halprin did not want him to park his chair in that spot.
These bronze men and women, not included in the original plans for the Vietnam Veterans' or FDR Memorials, have interest groups and congress to thank for their existence.
Maya Lin’s original design for the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial -selected by blind competition- was simple: a quiet depression in the earth, a pair of black granite walls, visitor’s faces reflected in the names of the dead. Once it was announced that the winning designer was an Asian-American female and a student at Yale, things got ugly. Veterans’ groups lobbied for a patriotism injection. Flags and bronze soldiers and nurses were tacked on around the perimeter. Herosim was added to the narrative of mourning.
Lawrence Halprin’s plan for the FDR memorial was similarly hijacked. Lovingly designed, the enormous granite tribute to the 32nd president is a progression of four rooms, one for each of his terms. In these, the story of America’s struggle through depression and war unfold until, at the end, an enormous statue of a larger-than-life president is revealed. The memorial did, however, neglect one facet of the president’s life: as he led the country through and out of hell, he was sitting in a wheelchair. The memorial went up. Disabled groups lobbied. Into the forecourt popped a humble-little life-sized FDR, perfectly placed to join in on group photos. Cheese!
These memorials are not alone. At least two other monuments near the Tidal Basin have been edited to suit the political zeitgeist, though more subtly and with less impact on the spirit their messages.
Last year, the MLK memorial was the most conspicuously edited monument in D.C. Designed, approved by Congress and the CFA, built, and dedicated in 2011, the socialist realist statue of King was flanked by two quotes. One, a paraphrase, read “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness." Maya Angelou et al. believed that the misquote twisted a humble statement of King’s into a brag. NPS deliberated. Politicians got grouchy. The designers stated their case to leave the memorial alone. Ultimately, Lei Yixin, the memorial’s sculptor, was called back to the U.S. from China to remove the quote, disguising the correction as streaks in the stone. He didn’t have much of a choice.
None of them did. Their work was no longer their own.
Is it possible to design a memorial so well or in such a complex fashion that it escapes post construction edits? What sort of memorial-design Jujutsu is necessary to escape the delayed demands of interest groups? Once a memorial is standing on federal land, is there any hope of saving it from design-by-congress? Frank Gehry sure is having one hell of a time trying to commemorate Eisenhower and his memorial is only in the popcicle-sticks-and-hot-glue phase of design.*
Maybe the best a designer can hope for is that, when the editors come, they maintain the integrity of the original idea. Better yet - a future edit might develop the memorial, keeping it fresh and meaningful.
Such a memorial stands just north of the Tidal basin. It is one of Washington’s oldest and the edit is subtle enough to be walked on, ignored. On the steps of the memorial to the president that declared slaves free; from which Marian Anderson sang "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" in the segregated capital; and from which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the one of the greatest speeches of the Twentieth Century; there is a small inscription:
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.
THE MARCH ON WASHINGTON
FOR JOBS AND FREEDOM
AUGUST 28 1963
Maya Lin--a Strong Clear Vision. Dir. Freida Lee Mock. By Freida Lee Mock. Prod. Freida Lee Mock. Ocean Releasing, 1995.
Savage, Kirk. Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape. Berkeley: U of California, 2009. Print.
All images for this post were shot on a Kodak Funsaver Disposable 35mm Camera