About a month ago I relocated to Washington DC. I’m actually embarrassed to confess that I used to seriously pooh-pooh DC as a ‘shell of a city’—citing the vast empty spaces and low density of its urban fabric as failing to constitute a ‘true city’. Furthermore, my perception of the National Mall with it’s collection of memorials, which I had always perceived as wholly contrived in a monumental-mini-golf sort of way, always eluded me as a meaningful public space. In fact, as a child, I remember comparing Washington DC to the game board of LIFE with its white plastic buildings and bridges. Of course, in keeping with a personal proclivity to recant and reform, I have experienced a monumental conversion of opinion when it comes to the urban status of DC.
On a recent morning outing, while I was out exploring the tidal basin, I was very pleasantly taken aback when I wandered into the FDR Memorial quite by accident. I’m ashamed to admit that in all of my trips to DC over the years I have never taken to time to visit this memorial–having ‘digested’ the design through magazines and having assumed it to be more of a contrivance than an enlightening experience. While this was in line with many of my actual experiences with contemporary memorial projects, nothing could have been further from the truth.
At seven and a half acres, the FDR Memorial is quite possibly the most elaborate of all the presidential memorials–or memorials of any kind, for that matter–in DC. This was the first detail that took me by surprise. And yet, as I made my way through a most impressive procession of thoughtfully detailed and choreographed spaces, I realized that this was not simply a presidential memorial, it was a memorial to one of the most profoundly challenging periods of the American experience encompassing the great depression, World War II, women’s suffrage, and a burgeoning civil rights movement.
I suppose part of my initial skepticism was related to my opinion of the landscape architect Lawrence Halperin–the ‘official’ designer of the memorial. While I have a very high regard for Halperin, there is a consistency to his work that can seem somewhat repetitive. I also happen to find his work a bit, dare I say, heavy handed. However, the FDR Memorial is Halperin at his finest and a big part of that is clearly in his role as a collaborator. Virtually every aspect of the design relies on the hands of many including but not limited to sculptors, masons and craftsmen of varying trade, engineers, specialty consultants, and contractors in general, to say nothing of the client, community, and ‘concerned parties’ / organizations. I cannot imagine the process this design was subjected to; notwithstanding, the end result is flawless.
My use of the word hands above is not unintentional. As a sort of preamble to what lies ahead, a dramatic, linear bronze plaque–strategically located both at the eye level of someone in a wheelchair as well as at a comfortable level for reading the braille inscription that accompanies the plaque’s text–presents a quote from Elenore Roosevelt describing how her husband’s illness:
“…gave him strength and courage he had not had before. He had to think out the fundamentals of living and learn the greatest of all lessons – infinite patience and never ending persistence.”
This remarkable work of art and its inherent message sets a very definitive tone for the rest of the memorial’s installations which all speak to a singular overarching theme: overcoming adversity–extreme or otherwise–in the name of the great potential our collective humanity offers each and every one of us. Within this context, the allusion of hands can be experienced ‘literally’ through the extraordinary workmanship of the architectural and sculptural installations, ‘symbolically’ through the prominent braille translations and the poetic dispositions of the many varying hands to be found throughout the memorial’s sculptural program, and ‘allegorically’ through the numerous quotes which extoll the importance of working, helping, and welcoming hands.
Clearly my experience of the FDR Memorial was profound. But, even more importantly, it presented me with a new found sense of appreciation for my new city. The truth is that everywhere I seem to go in DC now I am confronted with tremendous gravitas. I can’t be sure what I was missing in the past but I sure am glad I’m not missing it now–now that I call DC home…ish!
(Big sigh of relief!!!)
An incredible balance of monolithic stonework and voluptuous greenery. I have no idea how it is that the water appears to echo the color of the bronze patina–as the rear wall is the same stone; nonetheless, this effect is consistent with each of the memorial’s water features.
The level of abstraction of the memorial’s sculpture program is truly amazing; the tactile quality of this particular base-relief employs a weathered effect that links the relief to both the neighboring water feature and the rough stone in which it is set like a solid block…
(Words cannot describe the intensity of this space. So I won’t even try…)
Perhaps the most abstract of all the installations, this space speaks to the extraordinary efforts of getting the country back to work. Integral to this theme is a sentiment of truth in equality and tolerance along with a nod to suffrage, civil rights, and the rights of the infirmed…
I didn’t really speak of landscape in a literal sense here (i.e. plantings)–as it should be inherent. In any case, when I went back a second time to take pictures I was most curious to explore the outside edge. I often find the backside of memorials (all over–not just in DC) to be something of an after thought. I was pleased to find the backside of the FDR Memorial to be a lushly planted edge concealing a chain link fence with no hint of what was going on around the other side. I actually chanced upon an open gate but opted not to trespass; this IS still DC after all.