Remembering in bronze & stone

In light of Sept. 11, experts weigh in on what kinds of memorials have worked well in the past.

Franklin Roosevelt captured a nation's outrage with his ringing denunciation of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor as "a date which will live in infamy." But after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center Sept. 11, no one has yet come up with eloquent words to sum up our national anguish.

Instead, we look to art to convey what words cannot. Debate has begun as to what form a memorial to the victims should take.

"Architecture can help us cope with tragedy," says Robert A.M. Stern, dean of the school of architecture at Yale University. "There's an architecture of reassurance and an architecture of provocation. In the case of a tragedy like this, we want architecture to reassure us, to define who we are and our place in this moment."

A tall order, considering that memorials "have a troubled history," according to Bill Lacy, president of Purchase College, State University of New York, who is executive director of the Pritzker Prize in architecture. "As my mentor, Charles Eames, said, 'We've been in trouble with memorials ever since generals stopped riding horses.' "

Architects who design monuments (usually vertical structures or statues to honor heroes or events) and memorials (horizontal forms, which provide a more contemplative space, often for grieving) traditionally followed an accepted code. "We used to have a one-size-fits-all" aesthetic, says James Yood, assistant chair of art theory and practice at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

"Some people still think monuments should be monumental, with classical architectural references - big and white and grand," says Craig Griffen, assistant professor of architecture at Philadelphia University.

Others say the extreme nature of the tragedies of the 20th - and now 21st - century renders classical style and symbols, connoting consolation and stability, obsolete.

"A new generation of artists and architects has grown skeptical of traditional monumental form," says James Young, head of the department of Judaic and Near Eastern studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

"This generation questions the assumption that big, concretized forms can tell people how to think and remember," he says. For them, the forms are "redolent of fascist authority." They've responded with "counter-monuments, conceived to challenge conventional premises," he says.

The idea that a monument can somehow repair a wound is passé in these circles. "They would rather remember events as irredeemable," Professor Young says, by creating "a place where we can feel the great void."

"Some people think horror should be represented with horror," says Julian Bonder, associate professor at Roger Williams University School of Architecture in Bristol, R.I. Mr. Bonder says memorials "should not be storytelling. They should leave memory as an enigma."

The consensus among architects and historians surveyed is that effective memorials embody this reticence, stimulating the viewer's own thoughts.

"The most successful monuments evoke a response of reflectiveness," says Carole Blair, professor of American studies at the University of California, Davis. She cited the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C., which "asks you to put together the era narratively, to do it yourself from fragments." The Vietnam Veterans Memorial by Maya Lin also "doesn't ask anyone to pass judgment on the war, just as the Lincoln Memorial doesn't tell you what to think."

Harold Marcuse, associate professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, agrees that the most effective monuments "have different meanings for different people." By avoiding a narrow message, they remain relevant to future generations, as sentiment and close connection to the events recede.

As failures, he cited heavy-handed monuments in Eastern Europe, like statues portraying the Soviet Army as heroic liberators. When monuments force viewers to swallow propaganda, Professor Marcuse says, "The monument becomes an icon of ridicule."

Although open-endedness is a virtue, lack of unity can sabotage effectiveness. "The Korean War Veterans Memorial," according to Professor Blair, "is a design disaster. People don't get it. It's very incoherent."

Which points to another trait of successful monuments. "The most effective ones," says Professor Griffen, "provide an emotional tug." At the Lincoln Memorial, "People get an idea of the person from the grand, overscaled statue because of the emotion caught in that statue. People are moved by things that are human, not cold slabs of stone."

The Oklahoma City National Memorial on the site of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building succeeds on these terms. It includes 168 chairs, one for each victim (half-sized chairs commemorate children), which are "the most successful part of the memorial," according to Marita Sturken, associate professor at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California. "They evoke a sense of an individual, which is what people respond to, rather than a mass of collective victims."

The symbolism of empty chairs suggests rather than states a message. "The absence left behind invites people to fill the chairs with their own reasons for coming," Young says.

Understatement lends power to Ms. Lin's minimalist design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial - a black wall gradually rising out of the earth, and then subsiding into it. Northwestern's Mr. Yood praises it as "the single most successful public memorial of the 20th century, [which] did more to reconcile our nation's ambiguous feelings about Vietnam than anything else."

In a statement accompanying her proposal, Lin explained, "I had an impulse to cut open the earth ... an initial violence that in time would heal." The abstract design, whose reflective surface is covered with more than 58,000 names of American soldiers killed in the conflict, provided "a place where art can actually begin to heal a nation," Yood says, "the wailing wall of America."

"The Vietnam Veterans Memorial set a new standard for memorials," agrees Griffen. The inscribed names "took it from a monumental to a personal level, from something you look at to something that stirs us."

Lin's proposal was hotly criticized by Vietnam veterans, who found it too funereal, but it has become a pilgrimage site. Young called it "our greatest single counter-monument, remembering a war we'd rather forget."

Friedrich St. Florian's design for a World War II Memorial, now under construction on the mall in Washington, has also occasioned controversy - not because its design is too radical, but too traditional. In its present form, pillars will surround the Rainbow Pool, two arches will serve as entries, and a wall inset with 4,200 bronze stars will symbolize 420,000 Americans who lost their lives.

Criticism centers around the classical architectural elements and iconography (such as sculpted eagles and laurel wreaths), which some associate with Albert Speer's grandiose designs for Berlin under Adolf Hitler, as well as the monument's potential to block the grand sweep of the mall from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial.

Mr. St. Florian, a professor of architecture at Rhode Island School of Design, explains, "I wanted to strike a balance between classical principles and a sense of modernity." An adaptation of classical architecture was appropriate, he adds, because of its timelessness and the context of surrounding neoclassical buildings.

Most feel such a traditional design would not work for a memorial at the World Trade Center site. "For New York, the center of the art world," Griffen says, "there's an opportunity to set an example of what our culture is like today."

For Philadelphia architect Robert Venturi, classical elements can still work. He and his partner, Denise Scott Brown, advocate "getting back to symbolism and iconography in architecture," rather than abstract design, "which was all the rage in the 20th century," Mr. Venturi says.

Taking time to gain perspective on the events, rather than rushing to a decision on a memorial, is crucial. "This is not about moving fast to closure," Rhode Island's Bonder says. "There should be a very long and intelligent debate." And he cautions against the human impulse to make something positive out of catastrophe. "We can't think that art corrects life."

In this view, memorials should not soothe with answers but provoke questions. "In the aftermath of public trauma, the most important aspect is the perpetrators and why they did what they did," Marcuse says, adding, "Those who did this are evil people, but we need to understand them. A truly great memorial should acknowledge there are inequities."

He admitted such a subtext would be "the equivalent of putting the My Lai massacre in a Vietnam memorial. So it won't happen. It's too difficult emotionally and politically to include." A memorial, Marcuse says, should leave "us with a thorn in our sides to keep reminding us of the horror, but not so that it's too much to bear."

One way to express atrocity is through metaphor. This is the domain of art, which evokes more than tells and traverses the fine line between the necessity, and the impossibility, of representing horror.

"You don't look directly at the sun," Bonder says. "You understand the brightness of the sun by viewing the shadows it casts."

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