Controversial WWI Memorial Charts Narrow Path Forward

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Aerial view of the approved conceptual design for the National WWI Memorial at Pershing Park / World War I Centennial Commission

In a circumscribed win for backers of a new national World War I memorial at the site of Pershing Park in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) unanimously granted their support to the latest conceptual design for the memorial at their July 19 meeting.

The revised proposal was presented by David Rubin, ASLA, principal of Land Collective, who joined the World War I Centennial Commission (WWICC) design team in 2017. Other members of the team include architect Joe Weishaar, GWWO, and sculptor Sabin Howard.

The project has generated controversy due to its location at Pershing Park, which was designed by ASLA medal recipient M. Paul Friedberg, FASLA. The park, which opened in 1981, has fallen into disrepair in recent years as maintenance funds have been cut.

The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) and others have argued the park has historic value and should be rehabilitated as part of any memorial construction, arguing that the park can accommodate new memorial elements without fundamentally altering Friedberg’s original design. The National Park Service (NPS), which operates the park, determined in 2016 the park was eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, calling it “an exceptional example of a landscape design of the modern period.”

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Pershing Park (looking south) / Image courtesy of M. Paul Friedberg & Partners, via The Cultural Landscape Foundation

Backers of the new memorial have pointed to their Congressional mandate, which specifically designates Pershing Park as the site for a national WWI memorial, and have argued that preservation concerns should not take priority over an act of Congress. They have also emphasized that WWI is the only major conflict whose veterans are not memorialized in the nation’s capital.

The approved design concept retains a previously-proposed sculptural wall on the western edge of the park as the memorial’s signature element. The wall would be freestanding and placed in the western end of the park’s original pool, which is currently inoperable. The wall would incorporate cascading water features, referring to the original design’s waterfall at the western edge of the pool.

The proposal also calls for a paved viewing platform to be constructed in the center of the existing pool area, which Rubin said could also be used for events and commemorations. In the concept presented to CFA, the platform would substantially reduce the size and alter the shape of the original pool.

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Perspective view of the proposed viewing platform / World War I Centennial Commission

In granting their support, CFA asked the design team to continue to refine elements of design, including the sculptural wall, the function of the site of an existing unused kiosk on the northeast corner of the site, and the layout of the proposed viewing platform.

Overall, however, CFA was persuaded by the WWICC proposal. “For the first time, the client and designers have talked about the memorial and the park as a whole and understand that the impact of the sculptural wall will be enriched by the spatial sequence through the park,” said CFA vice chairman Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA.

The initial design for the memorial was selected in 2015 by competition. The winning proposal, “The Weight of Sacrifice,” was submitted by architect Joe Weishaar and sculptor Sabin Howard. It called for replacing Pershing Park’s sunken pool with a flat lawn enclosed on three sides by bronze walls engraved with memorial text and figurative sculptures in bas relief.

In selecting the winning proposal, the jury described it as “elegant and absolute,” praising its simplicity.

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The original proposal by Joe Weishaar would have replaced the central pool with a turf panel, enclosed on three sides by bronze walls / World War I Centennial Commission

The competition jury originally included Laurie Olin, FASLA. However, Olin resigned from the jury before the competition began after learning that Pershing Park could be threatened. Olin told Politico earlier this year that he does not support the project.

The WWICC had hoped the new park would be completed in time for the 100th anniversary of the Armistice this coming November. However, approvals for the design have proven difficult to secure because of concerns over the impact on Pershing Park.

In his remarks at the July meeting, TCLF president Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, opposed the option presented by the WWICC design team and instead urged CFA to support an alternative that would place sculptural elements “in-the-round” at the current site of the unused kiosk. That proposal was also supported by Oehme van Sweden, who revised the planting plan for the site with Freidberg in the 1980s, and former ASLA president Darwina Neal, FASLA.

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Perspective view of the “in-the-round” alternative favored by The Cultural Landscape Foundation / World War I Centennial Commission

Neal argued in a written statement that “such a ‘sculpture in the round’ in the kiosk location could seamlessly be added to the existing park.”

However, CFA rejected this alternative in favor of the memorial design team’s preferred configuration, which they felt struck an appropriate balance between Friedberg’s original design and the new memorial elements. “I’m convinced that the wall will not destroy the integrity of this landscape, but in fact will reinterpret it,” said Meyer.

CFA commissioner Edward Dunson agreed: “This is still Friedberg’s space as far as I’m concerned; it just has a different interpretation, and I feel comfort in that.”

“I don’t believe that strict—emphasis on strict—preservation of the original design is more important than the congressional decision to designate the entirety of Pershing Park as a memorial,” said Alex Krieger, a CFA commissioner. “I’m not persuaded that everything about the original design has to be preserved, and therefore the memorial needs to take second standing. I think they must take equivalent standing.”

In an email, Rubin said that “with the approval of a preferred option by the CFA, we have met a significant milestone in the realization of a comprehensive design for the memorial,” but “there are still many design exercises moving forward.”

The WWICC design team will need to resolve the outstanding issues identified by CFA and present a more detailed proposal as well as clear a revised design with other regulatory agencies, including the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) al, before they can begin construction.

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