Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 January 2013
One of the more contentious contemporary debates on commemorative architecture revolves around the World War II memorial by Friedrich St. Florian on the Mall in Washington, D.C. The structure's location between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial could hardly be more prominent. The monument consists of fifty-six commemorative stelae arranged around a large, circular plaza with reflecting pool. It is intersected by two perpendicular axes, one identical with the Mall's main east-west axis and the other defined by two triumphal arches at the north and south exits of the structure. One refers to the Atlantic theater of the war, the other to the Pacific. The axis they suggest, however, points neither to Berlin nor to Tokyo, but rather to Canada and the Bahamas. The twisted symbolism results from the fact that the idea of relating the structure of the memorial to the geography of the war was entirely incompatible with the layout of the Mall. The semiotics of the memorial demands that the arches be arranged along the east-west axis; this “correct” signification, however, would have had aesthetic consequences that would have pushed the design toward the outright bizarre.
The main objection to the design, however, stems from a different aspect. Some critics have noted a certain resemblance to the works of Albert Speer. This judgment is not unfounded. In its overabundance of victory signs, its huge size, and its classical style, the structure does indeed display a certain Speerish quality. This trait does not, however, make St. Florian’s design unique. In fact, the ceremonial core of Washington, D.C., contains numerous examples of monumental architecture about which the same could be said. The Federal Reserve building, the National Gallery, the 1930s addition to the Department of Agriculture on the south side of the Mall, and several of the buildings of the Federal Triangle: a photo or model of any of these would not look out of place if smuggled into an exhibition on the architecture of fascism. What makes the World War II memorial unacceptable in the eyes of its critics is not its Speer-like style per se – after all, nobody seriously suggests tearing down any of the existing structures in a similar style – but its severe case of misdirected historicism. The memorial strives for historical authenticity by looking as if it were built in the 1940s, as it indeed does.