Sprawl Is Ruining Memorial Design

It’s time to bring back the arch and the obelisk.

Memorial designers have long relied on a standard formula: Go vertical, and slap an inscription on it. But Maya Lin’s beautifully minimalist Vietnam Veterans Memorial, completed in 1982, ushered in a new era of horizontal memorials that are places as much as they are monuments.


Wall Street Journal critic Catesby Leigh argues that we’ve lost something in the process. “Historically, memorials have communicated their significance through a combination of mass, verticality and symbolism: the qualities we think of as monumental,” he wrote last week. “When you lose monumentality’s conceptual and spatial compactness, you’re apt to wind up with a poorly resolved memorial.” Plus, all that acreage is pricey.

His recommendation: “We need to focus once again on memorials as monuments–symbolically resonant forms–and not places.” In short, dump educational experiences and return to abstract symbolism. While horizontal memorials let designers shape how the public experiences its cultural past, Leigh points out that these strung-together public “rooms” can lack visual power. That said, Leigh’s version of history breezes past non-Western examples of horizontal monuments. From a vast army of terra cotta soldiers in China to the Native American mounds that dot the Midwest, other cultures have found resonance in sacred spaces that “sprawl” with abandon.

Yet the bigger question remains: How should we pay respect to our past? As communities grapple with tragedies, from school shootings to terrorist attacks, it’s time to re-open the debate. Decide for yourself by taking a look at these examples.


Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1982)

Image: Brandon Bourdages / Shutterstock

This V-shaped, 200-foot-long memorial is the exception to Leigh’s rule. Visitors gradually descend along black-granite panels bearing the names of 57,692 soldiers. It is at the point of the “V” where the walls are highest–and that, Leigh says, “provides the focus and resolution essential to the wall’s power, both qualities typically lacking in sprawling memorials.”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial (1997)

Image: Shutterstock

At the time of its construction, debate about this memorial centered around designer Lawrence Halprin’s decision to portray FDR in a wheelchair, a view the president took pains to avoid during his lifetime. Too bad no one thought to edit down the grab-bag of attractions (distractions?) that surround this pivotal statue, from a waterfall to a series of columns that look like dumbbells.

Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum (2001)

Image: Wikipedia

Oklahoma City has the dubious distinction of being the site of the first terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Through its grief, the city collaborated closely with designer Hans Butzer to arrive at a three-acre memorial on the site of the attack, bookended by arches that display the time of the attack. Chairs for each of the 168 victims–children are represented in miniature–make the stadium-size space deeply personal.


National World War II Memorial (2004)

Image: Vacclav / Shutterstock

This much-delayed memorial by Friedrich St. Florian finally opened 10 years ago, more than 50 years since the war it commemorates. With a wreath of wreath-adorned columns and symbolism galore, it’s a good example of a memorial-by-committee design. Postcard-quality views of the Washington Monument somewhat redeem it.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (2004)

Image: Pal Teravagimov / Shutterstock

Architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold designed this bleak memorial for a 4.7-acre site in the shadow of Berlin’s grand Brandenburg Gate. Sober visitors walk between the memorial’s 2,711 concrete slabs, a cemetery twisted into something more foreboding, while locals bask in the sun during their lunch hour.

9/11 Memorial Museum (2014)

Image: littleny / Shutterstock

The paint is barely dry on New York’s memorial, but already critics have voiced their discontent: “The place doesn’t feel like New York. It feels like a swath of the National Mall plunked in downtown Manhattan: formal, gigantic, impersonal, flat, built to awe, something for tourists,” Michael Kimmelman wrote in the New York Times. Ouch. The tension on Kimmelman’s mind: For a horizontal design to make sense in an urban setting, it cannot be purely sacred ground, set apart from the rhythms of daily life.


Memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower (proposed)

Image: Citizenship AEI

At a whopping $142 million, this bank-breaking Frank Gehry design is slated for Independence Avenue, near the National Mall. It toes the line between public space and site of memory with tall screens that form an outdoor “room” around a series of historical vignettes. Frankly, we’re most excited about the trees.


About the author

Senior Writer Ainsley Harris joined Fast Company in 2014. Follow her on Twitter at @ainsleyoc.