West Potomac Park at the southwest corner of 23rd Street and Constitution Avenue, NW
Dear Ms. Mendelson-Ielmini:
In its public meeting of 17 September conducted by videoconference, the Commission of Fine Arts reviewed a third concept design submission for the National Desert Storm and Desert Shield Memorial, proposed to be located near the southwest corner of 23rd Street and Constitution Avenue, NW. Consistent with its previous advice, the Commission continued to express support for the overall design of the memorial but again did not take an action, raising concerns about the conceptual and artistic shortcomings of the proposed sculptural elements and providing the following recommendations for the development of the memorial’s thematic elements and details.
The Commission members found that the memorial’s basic composition of curving walls, derived from the dune formations of the desert landscape of Kuwait, is very strong; they characterized these forms and the general layout as a brilliant context for commemorating this significant international conflict. However, they continued to identify a fundamental ambiguity in the memorial’s narrative content, which they found has led to unnecessary complication and busyness in the design, and which is manifested in the program of various sculptural elements. They said this confusion proceeds from a lack of clarity about what is being memorialized: Is it the sacrifice of the fallen, or the celebration of a military victory? Is the focus of that victory the international coalition’s accomplishment following the Cold War, or is it something more abstract, such as the perceived transformation of the reputation of the American military? They advised that the profusion of themes, expressed as artistically unrelated sculptures, weakens the design and must be reconciled in order to create an enduring memorial that carries meaning for future generations.
In their discussion, the Commission members found that this lack of clarity and confusion of narratives has created a conflict between realism and abstraction in the proposed design—resulting in highly literal human figures and bas-relief battle scenes juxtaposed with sculptures bearing symbolic meaning, such as birds signifying nations and a shield representing international collaboration. In general, they cautioned that the success of the sculptures will depend on their artistic quality and conceptual integration. They recommended rethinking the sculptural elements, possibly eliminating some of them, with the following specific comments:
Shield fountain. The Commission members expressed strong support for the development of this central feature as reminiscent of battle shields of antiquity; they suggested making it all bronze, consistent with the historical precedent of a shield. They also recommended incorporating more relief and pattern in the shield’s surface to enliven the sound created by the movement of water.
Bas-reliefs. The Commission members commented that these scenes have a dream-like and saccharine quality instead of conveying the chaos of battle. They emphasized that the success of these images would be dependent on their artistic quality; they suggested the bas-reliefs by themselves may be enough sculpture for the memorial, and the freestanding statuary could be eliminated entirely.
Bird figures. The Commission members expressed general support for the bronze eagle and falcon sculptures, proposed to be mounted at the top of the Storm Wall; however, they cautioned that the proposed composition may not support the memorial’s narrative, observing that the falcon appears to be subordinate to the eagle, or that the pair may appear to be engaged in an aerial dogfight.
Freestanding figures. Noting the difficulty of translating photography into appropriate commemorative art, the Commission members found the freestanding statuary to be the weakest element of the design, both artistically and conceptually. They described the grouped composition of service members and a dog to be insufficiently heroic and inappropriately informal given the solemnity of the memorial’s subject, creating an inevitable attraction for visitors to touch and pose with the sculptures. Some Commission members advised that the memorial would be better without these figures; any design retaining them requires establishing a sense of formality in order to honor those in service, as well as reconsidering the location of the grouping—preferably away from the Transformation Wall, where just the heads would be seen above the wall from outside the memorial.
The Commission recognizes the complexity of the undertaking to commemorate this conflict that occurred at a pivotal moment in history, and looks forward to the review of a revised concept submission that responds to these comments. As always, the staff is available to assist you.
/s/Thomas E. Luebke, FAIA
Lisa Mendelson-Ielmini, Acting Director
Region 1–National Capital Area
National Park Service
1100 Ohio Drive, SW
Washington, DC 20242
cc: Skip Graffam, The Olin Studio
Scott Stump, National Desert Storm War Memorial Association
Marcel Acosta, National Capital Planning Commission