by James F. Cooper

To create sacred space is to create an ordered universe emanating around a central point of reference.

—Mircea Eliade

Washington Monument, 1884

Just after Veterans Day, I arrived in Washington, D.C., and checked into a hotel not far from the National Mall. The next morning, I headed straight up Twelfth Street, which intersects the Mall almost at its center, several hundred feet northeast of the Washington Monument. Despite the early hour and the blustery November winds, nearly 3,000 visitors were already spread across the lawns and memorials located between the U.S. Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial. From the eastern part of the Mall, barely visible, a large crowd of chanting demonstrators banged drums and blasted rock music from defec- tive loud speakers. It has been three years since the publication of our book The National Mall: Rethinking Washington’s Monumental Core, a collection of insightful essays by architects, city planners and scholars, but already much has changed.1

The groundbreaking ceremony for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture took place on February 22, 2012. The museum, on the Mall at Constitution Avenue and 14th Street NW, will open in 2015. The oval-shaped World War II Memorial has been completed, and all signs of a construction project have been removed. The reconstruction and landscape restoration surrounding the Washington Monument has also been finished, although an important new project for the monument is presently under consideration. The National Ideas Competition for the Washington Monument Grounds, explains Chairman James P. Clark, began with the realization that the sixty-acre Monument grounds were never completed as intended by L’Enfant or the McMillan Commission,2 with shade trees and public amenities. One of the jurors for the competition, Dr. Kirk Savage, Chair of the History of Art and Architecture at the University of Pittsburgh, writes: “The National Competition is an ideal way to spark new thinking...about this hugely important symbolic space. With fresh visionary thought the Washington Monument grounds could one day become the real heart of the nation...in a new way that speaks to the aspirations of the twenty-first century.”3

The competition hopes to heighten public interest in George Washington, the Revolution and other chapters in the larger American story. Although the Olin Studio has created elegant landscaping for the site, the competition leaders ask: “How can this landscape continue to tell our uniquely American story into the future?” Among the committee’s many sponsors and supporters are George Washington University, the Catholic University of America and the Virginia Society of the American Institute of Architects. In The Golden City, art historian Henry Hope Reed underscores the important collaborative contribution made by sculpture and painting to architecture. This suggests endless possibilities to enhance the quality of the site, at the same time introducing symbolic elements that connect with the national narrative. Other areas on the Mall would benefit from such productive thinking. The World War II Memorial looks like an empty stage, in desperate need of major characters and symbols. The problem is even more glaring in the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, which is crowded with postmodern trivia.

Stone of Hope Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial, 2001There are heartening signs. The National Park Service is reconstructing the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool, originally designed by Henry bacon. The 2,000-foot-long imprint, which connects the World War II Memorial with the Lincoln Memorial (also designed by bacon), has been drained and torn up to install a new underground water circulating system, with over 14,300 linear feet of piping. Walking the dirt road along the bright orange fencing, one passes dozens of Deere cranes, Caterpillar shovels, derricks, cementmixers, trucks and hundreds of orange-helmeted construction personnel. The scruffy grass border on the north and south sides of the pool will be replaced by paved walking paths to prevent future erosion. This must not detract from one of the most moving sights in the nation’s capital. Over 2,100 timber pilings are now being embedded into the forty-foot-deep layer of river clay and bedrock.

The Mall is a work-in-progress. The long walk between the Washington Monument and the World War II Memorial allows plenty of opportunities to appreciate the positive changes that have taken place. Many of these changes address problems pointed out by critics, who have called for the establishment of a conservancy to coordinate the different elements, institutions and memorials that constitute what many consider the sacred center of the nation.

The new Martin Luther King, Jr., National Memorial, designed by the ROMA Design Group, is set into a triangular four-acre site, directly across the Tidal basin from the Jefferson Memorial. The only way to enter this massive granite tribute is to pass through a valley created by two giant stones, named the Mountains of Despair. My experience passing beneath their shadow suggests the biblical psalm “into the valley of the shadow of death.” On the other side is a colossal thirty-foot-high, rough-hewn statue of King, carved from one of the mountain slabs. King’s arms are folded across hisbroad chest in a combative stance; his countenance uplifted, he stares confidently straight ahead at Jefferson and the ocean beyond. The style is radically different from the neoclassical elegance of Daniel Chester French’s Lincoln or Frederick Hart’s Three Soldiers.

Frederick Hart, Three Soldiers, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, 1984

Hart’s sculpture has a melancholy that sets it apart from many of the nineteenth-century and twentieth-century works on the Mall. Three Soldiers is a beautiful, classical work of great quality, but its mood is one of alienation. These soldiers are not heroic, in the sense we usually understand. Their gaze is not stoic, reverential or inspired; it is haunted and confused. The nineteen combat soldiers of the Korean War Memorial share a similar expression, as they advance across a triangular-shaped grass plot. both memorials use a wall as a background, with the names of the fallen. Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial is highly successful, but the aesthetics of the Korean War Memorial site needs to be seriously reconsidered. In contrast to these twentieth-century memorials, the statues of Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson possess a gravitas fit for the noblest of men.

While it does not aim for neoclassical serenity, the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial has its own gravitas. I hope it is a sign that we have unshackled ourselves from the postmodern culture that trivialized everything, particularly in the civic square. The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial trivializes the accomplishments of the only man to be elected president four times. The lack of quality, the pervasive sense of kitsch and the general lack of respect for the man himself cannot be substantiated fully in this short review. Nor will the shortcomings and banality of the World War II Memorial be itemized here. Now controversy is swirling around Frank Gehry’s plan for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial. The Eisenhower family objects to the proposed statue of the general and president as a “barefoot boy” (a phrase Eisenhower used to describe his Kansas childhood). Leon Krier, who teaches at the yale School of Architecture with Gehry, has voiced the more fundamental concerns of contemporary classicists. Krier, who considers Gehry “a great but greatly con- fused artist,” sees in the design—sprawling across a four-acre site, with plain columns supporting metal tapestries that function as outsize video screens—a troubling “distaste” for traditional civic architecture.

If we would truly honor America’s heroes, we must create worthy monuments. The form and character of what is placed on the Mall shapes the vision of 25 million visitors each year. Observing so many military personnel mixing among the civilians, as they visited the different memorials and the great cultural institutions that flank the north and south sides of the Mall, made me hope that, somehow, we will pull together as a nation through these trying times. That our best lies before us, not behind us. 

The Mall has generated heated debate among the people and the leaders of the country since the first monument was planned by Congress in 1783. The Washington Monument was not completed until 1884, a hundred years later. After disputes, the original plans for an equestrian statue of George Washington were cancelled in 1836. Robert Mills’s architectural design for a neoclassical circular colonnade, surrounding a flat-topped obelisk supporting a statue of the first president, also failed. The cornerstone was laid in 1848, but the design was abandoned in 1876, replaced with an unadorned Egyptian obelisk with a pointed pyramidion. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of the War Department was charged with completing the construction. The monument was dedicated on February 21, 1885. Today, it seems an appropriate focal point, rising from the center of what has become an increasingly important gathering place for the American people. It is fitting that this symbol has become the axis mundi of this sacred piece of land. Washington represented a new type of leader, endowed with what Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called “the aristocracy of nature.”

Great art—especially great civic art—belongs not just to artists or patrons, or even a canon of masterpieces, but to the people. American Arts Quarterly has spent considerable time analyzing the cultural divide fragmenting the nation. Now the military is beginning to take notice. As I walked the broken dirt trail toward the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool, I passed several groups of uniformed soldiers, the size of platoon squads, and overheard animated conversations. The Armistice Day edition of Time magazine had chosen as its cover story “An Army Apart,” a special report on the uneasy state of our military forces. The subtitle reads: “45,000 troops are coming home to a country that doesn’t know them.” General Robert Gates, former Secretary of Defense, summed it up well in a recent speech he delivered to cadets at West Point. Gates related a story about his last trip to Afghanistan, where a marine sergeant told him that American youth joined the military because “they were seeking a set of standards and values that is better than that of the civilian sector. Loyalty, respect and honor distinguish American soldiers from American society.”4 Gates has a grave warning for America: “There is a risk over time of developing a cadre of military leaders that politically and culturally have less and less in common with the majority of the people they have sworn to defend.”5 

John Casey, in his study Pagan Virtue, traces the philosophical roots of the disconnect between art and content back to Emmanuel Kant, “for promoting the loss of virtue as an area of study of honor and the four cardinal virtues of courage, temperance, wisdom and grace.”6 Separating art from subject matter was an important step in the evolution of modern aesthetics, especially for an eighteenth-century scholar. but one consequence has been that we have lost faith in the idea that great deeds can inspire great art. This has led us to a dark place, where artists seem reluctant to express who we are and where we are going as a people. At its best, civic art brings together the different elements of society by reminding us of our heroes, ideals and high standards. This enterprise requires visionary sponsors. In 1903, we had such a group, the McMillan Commission, named after the senator who organized it. But we cannot leave the creation of sacred objects to bureaucrats and politicians alone. A conservancy for the Mall is one solution. We need to restore the connection between the people and the arts. To accomplish this, we need people who not only know what is appropriate, but what is good art and architecture. To paraphrase Clausewitz, art is too important to be left to the arts establishment. 

View of reflecting pool with work in progress, September 2011

I sensed an energy on the Mall, a sense of expectation. This is our nation’s premier civic space—a beautiful venue for demonstrations, national celebrations, reflection and contemplation; a place to explore values and ideas that reflect how Americans see themselves. but, most of all, it is a place that pays homage to what we hold dear. It is home to the enduring symbols of country. “The Washington Mall is the paramount pilgrimage center of the American nation,” writes Frederick Turner.7 Pilgrimage is an ancient word, referring to a journey, usually a long one, made to some sacred place as an act of devotion or to pay homage. To some, it may seem a quaint, archaic practice. but to millions, it is increasingly a sacred rite of passage. Turner doesn’t use the word pilgrimage lightly. The National Mall, in recent years, with its rich symbolic monuments and architectural resources, has begun to restore the ancient communal sense of national purpose.

Our focus at AAQ is intrinsically bound up in the creation and quality of good art. For centuries, the aesthetic quality alone of a work of Western art was sufficient for praise and reward. With the rejection of aesthetics itself during the twentieth century, public art has come almost to a full stop in contributing to the quality of our culture. The Washington Mall demands our attention as a great national test to restore our honor and moral center. 


1. The National Mall: Rethinking Washington’s Monumental Core, edited by Nathan Glazer and Cynthia Field; with essays by Witold Rybezyaski, Michael J. Lewis, Frederick Turner, Richard Guy Wilson, Cynthia Field and Nathan Glazer; Foreword by James F. Cooper (baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008).

2. www.wamocompetition.org

3. Ibid.

4. Mark Thompson, “The Other 1%,” Time (Vol. 178, No. 20, November 21, 2011), p. 35.

5. Mark Thompson, “The Other 1%,” Time, (Vol. 178, No. 20, November 21, 2011), p. 37.

6. John Casey, Pagan Virtue: An Essay in Ethics (New york: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 49.

7. Frederick Turner, “Washington as a Pilgrimage Site,” The National Mall: Rethinking Washington’s Monumental Core, edited by Nathan Glazer and Cynthia Field (baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), p. 79.

American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2012, Volume 29, Number 1