National monuments are strange creations. Their designs are intended to be symbolic, metaphorical and try to tell a story. The designs can often also get deeply political. These are some of the stories behind the typically grueling process of creating a monument that is meant to represent a historical figure or event, but just as much is a design of its day.
The Washington Monument
It actually took 36 years to complete construction of the Washington Memorial from its initial ground-breaking. The reason for the hold-up was due to the lack of stabilization in the country at the time. The project was started in 1848, but a monument to Washington was conceived as far back as the late 18th-century. Due to a number of setbacks, including fund shortages, changes in political hands and a Civil War, the project was set aside more than a few times.
There were a few proposed designs, drawing on neoclassical architectural and even gothic styles of architecture. The final accepted design was that of Robert Mills, and it was decided upon in 1836. The goal of the project design was to create a monument that would be "uniquely American." A critic wrote of the initial design that it was an "unmeaning jumble of columns surmounted by an obelisk," and, "what have Greek and Egyptian sybmols to do with Washington?" This view held for about a decade, until it was determined by the publication [i]The Nation[/i] that the monument with the addition of the rotunda at the base weakened the impact of the obelisk.
The Army Corps of Engineers abided and built the structure as a more solemn version of its former self.
Trivia: One plan seriously considered for the structure included four Egyptian sphinxes "of colossal proportions, nationalized by the head and breast of our national bird, the bald eagle."
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial
To begin this story, we have something wonderful that few designers get: vindication. Congress held a competition for designs of the monument. There were 1,421 entries in the competition, but the one that took the cake was that of Maya Ying Lin, who hailed from Yale. When she submitted this design to her teacher, she received a B. Delicious vindication.
On to the design itself, it was to be rather minimalist design. Two walls of granite, each 250ft long forming a V, and buried in the ground -- a scar in the Earth. The two ends of the V point to the Washington and Lincoln memorials. The open scar was intended to symbolize the gravity of loss, as the monument forms quite a gaping chasm in the ground. Some have also interpreted it as the division in the country over opinions on the war itself.
The design, for its time, was highly unconventional for a war memorial. The austere nature of the monument garnered some criticism from the veterans themselves, as they wanted to see some representation of the American flag or a statue of soldiers. Their wish for the latter was granted, and soon statues were added to the monument.
Trivia: The monument is also unique in that it was actually designed to be modifiable. If a soldier was MIA, they had a cross placed next to their name (as opposed to a diamond, indicating death). If a body of a missing soldier had since been identified, it would be circled.
World War II Memorial
Perhaps one of the most recent memorials to gather so much controversy has been the World War II Memorial, which opened in 2004. The controversies of this monument lay almost entirely with the choice of design and location.
Dropped into the national mall between the Washington Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial (at the Rainbow Pool), the memorial is a rather large 7.4 acres in total area consumed. This interruption of the line of sight between the two famous landmarks drew a large target from national mall conservation groups, who remarked that the place had not just been famous for the landmarks, but also for the events that had happened there, such as the Million Man March and numerous protests.
Its pure size is one of the reasons architecture critics loathed its designs so much. It was argued by several critics that the design was straight out of same books that the dictators America was fighting would've picked up for inspiration. Thomas M. Keane, Jr. of the Boston Herald said of it:
Still, one can imagine that someone could have designed something that would blend into what was already there. Unfortunately, that's not what happened. This is a monument on steroids - vainglorious, demanding of attention and full of trite imagery. Walking around it, one is reminded of an obnoxious guy who tells an obvious joke and then sharply pokes you in the ribs with his elbow, asking, "Get it?"
The World Trade Center
Our last memorial isn't even really a memorial at all. Instead of making this tragic site of loss into a place of remembrance, it was decided that the area in which it would reside is too valuable to simply leave undeveloped.
The process to replace the old towers, however, has been slow. The new designs, aiming to address safety concerns that the designer felt were lacking in the old buildings, have been chastised for manifesting from a culture of fear, when much of the purpose of rebuilding has been to symbolize America's ability to not forget, but also to not dote upon.
The base of the tower, criticized for being dull at best and alienating at worst has also given the building the popular moniker "The Fear Tower." This, coupled with limited available commercial and residential space (due to safety concerns, according to the development owner), has cast a negative light on the project. It's currently due for completion in 2012.
Trivia: Of the 105 floors of the projected design, only 73 will be available for general usage.
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