Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
There’s only one worth keeping, and it’s not even in the contest.
A new memorial to those who fought in World War I could take the form of a winding pedestrian path through a garden or a plaza with framed images sunken into the ground. Or, the monument might be a series of 1,166 illuminated bronze markers. Or a plaza framed by walls with soldiers carved in bas-relief, combining features of memorials to the wars in Vietnam and Korea.
But the design that wins final approval for a National World War I Memorial in Washington, D.C., likely won’t preserve much of the World War I memorial that already exists on the site chosen for the next monument to the Great War.
On Wednesday, the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission announced five finalist designs for the National World War I Memorial. A design jury narrowed down the final five from more than 350 entries submitted in an open design contest. The memorial, if it is eventually approved by stakeholders and funded by donors, will be built in Pershing Park in Washington, D.C.
Few of the overall entries—and none of the finalist designs—takes any heed of the existing memorial there, to U.S. Army General John Joseph “Black Jack” Pershing, who led American forces during World War I. The sunken water garden and stair-step plaza at Pershing Park were designed by M. Paul Friedberg, with contributions from the firm Oehme, van Sweden & Associates, making it one of the most pedigreed parks in D.C. However, the park has been subject to gross neglect for years. The fountain and water features no longer function; the distinctive water-garden plantings are long since gone.
The design competition for the new memorial sparked an outcry from preservationists, namely The Cultural Landscape Foundation, which pledged to seek historic preservation status for Pershing Park. Architectural Record spoke to Friedberg, who was charged up over the proposal to pave over his World War I memorial to build a new World War I memorial.
The jury, which includes architects, critics, and scholars, will select a final design from the five to proceed toward realization. But preservationists aim to push stakeholders to consider whether any of the new park and memorial designs should succeed the existing park. Selecting a design is also just the start of the process; the commission will need to raise $20 million or more to build it. Meanwhile, the original Pershing Park design could be restored for far less.
The designs point to very open questions about the purpose of this memorial—or any memorial. The “Heroes’ Green” entry appears to be the most open to public use and interpretation, whereas the bas-relief walls of “The Weight of Sacrifice” or the 1,166 bronze markers for the “Plaza to the Forgotten War” design speak to a more solemn experience. “An American Family Portrait Wall in the Park” features framed images set into the ground: unprecedented (and strange). To round out the finalist phase, there’s the obligatory, inoffensive, utterly forgettable classical offering (“World War One Memorial Concept”).
In selecting a final design, the jury has to ask itself an important question: Do any of these proposals improve on Pershing Park, a contemplative, modernist landscape memorial, the way it stands now? (That is, when it’s being responsibly maintained)? If not, why should we spend so much more to achieve so much less?