- The Washington Times - Friday, October 13, 2006

In the nearly 2-1/2 decades since the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was unveiled on the Mall, the architecture of commemoration has become predictable and stale. Maya Lin’s black wall, still resonant in its simplicity, has inspired many uninspired variations, as has the statuary added beside its stark planes.A single symbol is no longer enough to remind us of the dead. We expect plazas, pavilions, sculptures, fountains, gift shops — much like a theme park, as evidenced by the overblown memorials to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and World War II.

The United States Air Force Memorial, which is being dedicated today, is more of the same. It has black stone walls engraved with quotations and names, and it has politically correct statues. It has parking spaces, public restrooms and places to make a donation.

However, it also rises above all that with a powerful symbol. Three gracefully arcing spires tower over this remote 3-acre plot in Arlington to grab our attention. You can’t miss them in approaching the site from nearby Interstate 395 or any of the roads snaking around the Pentagon. This is a memorial for the highway as well as the visitor.

The soaring spikes, while earthbound, succeed in representing flight. Their tapering, curving silhouettes mimic the vapor trails left by jets rocketing into the air to peel off in different directions. (The Air Force calls this formation the “bomb burst” maneuver.)

Gleaming in stainless steel, the tapering curves recall the shiny metal of aircraft. They don’t actually move but are dynamic in reflecting light and changing color; on gray days, they seem to merge with the sky and nearly disappear.

The spires, however, aren’t merely sleek objects to be admired. They invite contemplation of the bigger picture by framing an impressive panorama of downtown Washington from a triangular platform on the edge of a hillside. The vantage point is perfectly suited to the memorial’s purpose. Standing on this promontory is almost like being in a plane and seeing the city from a bird’s-eye perspective.

Who needs the Mall when you have the view? In fact, the memorial forges a connection to the Mall by bringing all its familiar landmarks into focus. Immediately noticeable is the Washington Monument, inviting comparisons between Robert Mills’ tall obelisk and the tapering spires. Also in sight are the sprawling Pentagon and white crosses of Arlington Cemetery, reminding visitors of active Air Force personnel and deceased airmen.

The location is a fortunate change in venue: In the early 1990s, the Air Force Memorial started out near the Marine Corps’ Iwo Jima flag-raisers until regulatory agencies nixed its initial design, a clunky, star-shaped enclosure, as too intrusive. In 2001, the memorial was moved to federal land next to the Naval Annex and reconfigured for the site.

Architect James Ingo Freed, who created the first design, seems to have taken that setback to heart in shaping a simpler, bolder image for the memorial. In translating flight into concrete and metal, Mr. Freed (who died in December) and his team from Pei Cobb Freed & Partners worked with engineer Ove Arup & Partners to devise an ingenious structural design.

Such convergence of technology and aesthetics is a hallmark of Mr. Freed’s architecture, which includes the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center.

As tall, slender structures, the spires had to compensate for potentially destructive movement. That led to an unconventional system of damping mechanisms near the top of each narrow triangular shaft.

Their lower portions are filled with reinforced concrete, while sections two-thirds of the way up are constructed of stacked steel boxes. Inside each is a lead ball that rolls into the padded side of its metal container when the spire sways in the wind. The ball-in-box construction, validated with wind-tunnel testing, prevents the spires from oscillating — and breaking during heavy winds.

None of that technology is apparent from looking at the sleek spires, clad in three-quarter-inch-thick stainless steel with barely noticeable welds. Mr. Freed drew on his modernist roots to create a seemingly lightweight, minimalist marker on the prow of this scenic overlook. It’s almost as if he deconstructed St. Louis’ Gateway Arch, fragmenting Eero Saarinen’s silvery curve and bending the pieces outward to embrace the sky.

Each spire rises to a different height — ranging from 201 to 270 feet — so that the memorial changes in appearance from different vantage points. Inscribed on the platform between the spires is the familiar Air Force star, its tips covered in glass that is illuminated from beneath to glow at night.

The three spires alone would have been strong enough to carry the memorial and evoke its message of heroism. As retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Edward F. Grillo, president of the Air Force Memorial Foundation, notes: “Most people get it.”

However, this being the first memorial to the Air Force, the sponsors couldn’t resist piling on the tributes. Marking the ends of this $30-million-plus precinct are 10-foot-tall, 56-foot-long black granite walls inscribed with history, honors, quotations.

And there’s more. In front of the north wall is a laminated glass panel engraved with fighter jets in the “missing man” formation. Tucked behind it, closest to Arlington Cemetery, is a small support building with administrative offices, restrooms and kiosks where computer screens provide information on the memorial — and the opportunity to donate money.

The Air Force Memorial Foundation also anticipated the addition of figural sculpture to Mr. Freed’s abstract symbol and commissioned its own. At the south end is an 8-foot-high bronze honor guard, including a black, a Hispanic and a woman, sculpted by Pennsylvania artist Zenos Frudakis.

At least these competing elements are kept to the periphery. Mr. Freed and his team collaborated with the Olin Partnership, a Philadelphia landscape architecture firm, to arrange them within clearly defined tree-lined spaces.

From the parking lot, placed nearest the Navy Annex, a wide promenade and a narrower walkway run diagonally to the prow and its views between the spires. In plan, the angled pathways form a triangle, repeating the shape of the prow, like a point on the Air Force star.

Next to the spires, a parade ground extends between the commemorative walls at opposite ends of the park. Screening this long space from the parking lot are tulip trees and a raised trapezoidal planter with a built-in bench for viewing military ceremonies.

Solemn gray and black granite and other dark finishes unify the paving, walls and various commemorative elements, now deemed by monument-builders as essential propaganda for keeping memory alive.

More photos of the Air Force Memorial at https://www.washingtontimes.com/photogallery/Galleries/USAF/

WHAT: U.S. Air Force Memorial

WHERE: 1 Air Force Drive (next to the Naval Annex on Columbia Pike), Arlington

WHEN: Today: Air Force Open House, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; dedication ceremonies and air show with U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, 1:30 p.m.; Lee Ann Womack concert, 3 p.m. Regular hours start Tuesday. October to March, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily; April to September, 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.


WEB SITE: www.airforcememorial.org

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