A old Washington chum, Stevenson Hugh Mields, one of the most original unrecognized humorists of our time, sends me his reaction to the WWI memorial competition:
I want to revise my entry. Instead of a pyramid of 1,000,000 artillery shells, the pyramid should be 1,000,000 skulls. Or an alternate version could be 1,000,000 spiked kraut helmets. Forget weepy poetry by Winfred Owen, too. Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham could be tweaked into, say, Splattered Brains and Spam. The site should be ugly with no trees, shrubbery, or sissy waterfalls. The visitor must walk through mud. When you split, there will be stations where you can rinse off your feet, like on the boardwalk at the beach.
Have I got your attention now? The top classical entry among the five finalists in the competition to design a national memorial to World War I in Washington is by Devin Kimmel, an architect from Annapolis, Md., who is a member of the Institute for Classical Architecture & Art. In a recent post I played around with his proposal, wondering whether its centerpiece really wanted to be an arch rather than what he calls a tower. But the tower itself, as designed, carries the sort of symbolic message that only classicism has sufficient vocabulary to convey.
Notice how the tower degenerates in form from its top and its shaft, which are of a rather orthodox classicism, down to its base, which is formed of a rusticated stone wall that itself degenerates into mere rocks and boulders as it meets the grotto and pond that constitute its foundation. This metaphor may be read a number of ways, of course, but it surely can be interpreted as suggesting the debasement of human society that is involved, of necessity, in embarking upon war, regardless of the merits of its rationale.
Maybe Kimmel’s tower doesn’t really want, or need, to be an arch after all! And perhaps the eloquence of the transition from civility to savagery can be made even more effective by using more calibrated gradations to increase the subtlety of the devolution toward the grotto.
This reading does not require any particular academic degree or knowledge set – it emerges naturally into the consciousness of anyone who understands the horror of war. So Kimmel’s memorial will be able to communicate with almost anyone who happens upon it a century from now.
It is difficult to imagine a memorial designed in a modernist vocabulary (if you can call it that) speaking with such coherent subtlety. I looked at each of the 350 designs as soon as they were up on the website of the National World War One Centennial Commission. Of these, nine out of ten were modernist, and I’d say 70-80 percent of those were silly efforts to use a great but tragic victory as an excuse to indulge in a sort of goofball symbolism, at which modernism excels – and which is mandatory in the design of monuments nowadays. The form of those monuments says nothing about anything, indeed visitors to a majority of them would have a hard time figuring out what the memorial memorializes, or even that it is a memorial. This is why modernist memorials use so many words – they are required to convey a significance that modernist sculptural asininity cannot handle.
Except for its will to ugliness, Steve Mields’s entry might well have qualified, because of its pyramid form and its legible vocabulary (whether skulls or Pickelhauben), as classical. It certainly gets his point across!