Monuments -- To What? Public art takes a beating

A monument casts bygone events in bronze, brass, limestone; it renders past heroes as living symbols.

It is, in short, a visual document of frozen passions.

In politics, however, that freezing process may take eons.

The Washington Monument was finished a century after the Revolutionary War. Lincoln's and Jefferson's memorials were completed in the 1920's and '40's. Time had tempered emotions before we saw their legacy in stone.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, whose 140 pilings now lie buried in Constitution Gardens, awaiting their granite markers, has had no such tempering time.

Even as Tennessee workers chisel into the memorial the names of the 57,692 veterans who died in the war, those who still have heated feelings about the conflict are again stirring controversy in Washington over the form of the monument.

A little more than three years ago, Vietnam veteran Jan Scruggs founded the committee that sponsored the competition for a memorial to his forgotten peers.

The winner was a 21-year-old Yale student, Maya Ying Lin, who had designed a classically simple chevron of thick granite walls, each some 200-feet long, ascending from 10 feet below the ground on the mall near the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.

''Walking through this park, the memorial appears as a rift in the earth -- a long, polished black stone wall, emerging from and receding into the earth,'' she wrote of her design.

Within the grassy site contained by the walls of the memorial, the viewer could barely make out the carved names, but ''these names, seemingly infinite in number, convey the sense of overwhelming numbers, while unifying those individuals into a whole,'' the statement read.

Paying deference to the mall as well as the veterans, Lin's ''place of healing'' was grand, yet submerged -- black not white, retiring not pompous, and neither morbid nor vaingloriously martial.

Created by an apolitical young woman to whom the war was not even a memory, the abstract design did not so much lack passion as rise above it. From its scooped site it was to enwrap the viewer like two palms -- a quiet, winged form, paying the ultimate compliment of bowing to the moment of controversy and paying deference to a site of overwhelming importance.

Despite such niceties of design, the memorial's aesthetics entered the arena of politics. Hostile forces called its incline a pit and the somber granite a ''dark hole of Calcutta.''

Secretary of the Interior James Watt was persuaded to demand a tributary soldier and a flag.

Now a second committee, staffed by veterans with no fine-arts expertise, has been gathered to decide on these appendages.

Scruggs is confident that their choice of a flag and soldier to stand before the structure will be appropriate.

''It will be done with the same concern and attention to detail that was created in our design competition,'' he insists. ''This is not going to be any kind of bizarre configuration of statuary, no kind of corny thing.''

Others who have seen the competing entries for contest No. 1 can only disagree. The flag-over-Iwo-Jima style of Felix de Weldon -- sculpture able to simulate the historic mode -- was notably absent, as witnesses to some of the ludicrous entries that competed with Lin's abstract winner can attest.

Time may lie with those who favor Lin's quiet remembering, nonetheless.

The military celebration to dedicate the memorial is scheduled Nov. 11-14, with celebrities like Bob Hope leading an ''our boys'' sort of entertainment.

''It's the mood in the country,'' says Robert Carver, executive vice-president of the memorial fund. He says a large turnout of veterans is anticipated at the dedication.

The celebration date will barely allow time to complete the monument, much less adorn it with any bombastic inanities.

''Remember,'' reminds architect Walter Netsch of the Commission on Fine Arts, ''the Washington Monument had disagreement for 40 years. Now we accept that needle with equanimity.''

If the fate of the Vietnam memorial is causing controversy, the future of Washington -- itself a monument -- may be in even greater jeopardy.

Some of those who would alter the outline of the Vietnam memorial would also like to create a 10-story Navy memorial arch across Pennsylvania Avenue.

This Claes Oldenburgesque concoction would be a giant triumphal arch, a limestone memorial, with acoustical panels that could drop down to become a bandstand, and two upper floors for a museum. This farcical idea proves that Washington architecture is too serious to be left to the generals.

Although the design has been temporarily withdrawn, the friends of the Navy are far from conceding. As one critic puts it: ''Nothing dies in Washington; everything is eternal.'' Vigilance, this suggests, should be, too.

The Commission on Fine Arts, the National Capital Planning Commission, and the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Commission, which supposedly oversee such buildings, can only recommend or reject, not enforce. The congressional committee to reconsider the design of the West Facade of the Capitol, for instance, met behind closed doors last month without public scrutiny.

Despite his emphasis on tight budgets, some planners in Washington fear President Reagan wants to leave bronze footprints behind him.

That aspiration is reflected in still another design that threatens the grace of the capital, the plan to finish the so-called ''federal triangle'' near the post office with private offices distinguished by heft rather than grace.

Like the flags, the sculpture of a soldier, or the naval arch, this and other emerging architectural symbols would record the imperial side of the era creating them. And the times are not auspicious for softening these designs into great or even passable public art.

Certainly monuments and Washington edifices of past times drew their sources from some of these same urges for urban grandeur.

They were to be ''an idealization of things worth remembering because they happened to so many people, with the details that are best forgotten left out,'' as Barry Greenbie puts it in ''Space, Dimensions of the Human Landscape'' (Yale University Press). But they finally overcame momentary conflicts.

''It may be the job of some poets to tell us things about our ancestors that we would rather not hear,'' he writes, ''but as far as I am concerned the job of statues is to help make it worthwhile to be a descendant, worthwhile being alive at all.''

Memorials, and our memorial city, should fulfill that criteria.

Passion may make us chauvinists in our aesthetics and apostles of instant, and not always memorable, symbols.

Still, it would be a special shame to have a capital landscape unworthy of its descendants. As our national civics class and monument of the past, Washington at the least deserves our deference.

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