The Washington Post
A March to Remember; Moving Monument to Korea Veterans Surpasses the Tortured History of Its Design
By Benjamin Forgey
When the Korean War Veterans Memorial is dedicated next Thursday -- the
42nd anniversary of the armistice ending the war -- veterans and their
families will be celebrating an honor long overdue.
They can also celebrate a work of beauty and power. Given the tortured
history of the memorial's design , this seems almost a miracle. But there
it is. Situated on proud symbolic turf southeast of the monument to Lincoln,
in equipoise with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to Lincoln's north, the
Korean memorial is a worthy addition to the national Mall.
Despite some big flaws, our newest memorial is incredibly moving. And
what could have been its most glaring weakness -- a column of realistically
sculpted soldiers in combat formation -- turned out to be its major strength.
Unheralded sculptor Frank Gaylord of Barre, Vt., created 19 figures that
are convincing individually and as a group.
It is a case of art rendering argument superfluous. There were obvious
dangers in the concept of a memorial featuring a column of battle-ready
soldiers. If excessively realistic, they could be off-putting. If strung
out in too orderly a row, they could be deadeningly static. And yet, if
inordinately animated, they could be seen as glorifying war. Indeed, in
one of Gaylord's early versions, they came perilously close to doing just
But in the end, none of this happened. Placed dynamically on a triangular
field of low juniper shrubs and cast in stainless steel at a scale slightly
larger than life, these gray, wary troopers unself-consciously invite
the empathy of all viewers, veteran and non-veteran alike.
The sculptures and triangular "field of service" are one of
three major elements in the memorial. With an American flag at its point,
the field gently ascends to a shallow, circular "pool of remembrance"
framed by a double row of braided linden trees. There also is a "memorial
wall." Made of huge slabs of polished black granite, each etched
with shadowy faces of support troops -- nurses, chaplains, supply clerks,
truck drivers and so on -- the 164-foot wall forms a subtly dramatic background
for the statues. High on the eastern end of the wall, where it juts into
the pool of water, is a terse inscription: FREEDOM IS NOT FREE.
The memorial was designed by Cooper-Lecky Architects of Washington --
although, in an important sense, the firm acted like the leader of a collaborative
team. Important contributions were made by Gaylord and Louis Nelson ,
the New York graphic designer of the memorial wall, and also by the Korean
War Veterans Memorial Advisory Board and the reviewing agencies, especially
the Commission of Fine Arts.
Not to be forgotten are the four architects from Pennsylvania State University
who won the design competition back in the spring of 1989 -- John Paul
Lucas, Veronica Burns Lucas, Don Alvaro Leon and Eliza Pennypacker Oberholtzer.
This team dropped out after it became apparent that its original design
would have to be altered significantly to pass muster with the advisory
board, reviewing agencies and others. The team sued, and lost, in federal
Key elements of the competition design remain in the final product --
particularly the central idea of a column of soldiers moving toward a
goal. But the finished product is a big improvement over the initial scheme.
It's smaller and more accommodating -- not only was the number of soldiers
cut in half (the original called for 38 figures), but also a vast open
plaza was eliminated in favor of the contemplative, shaded pool. It's
easier to get into and out of -- the clarity of its circulation pattern
is outstanding. Its landscaping is more natural -- among other things,
the original called for a grove of plane trees to be clipped "torturously,"
as a symbol of war. The symbolism of the memorial is now simple and clear.
Still, Cooper-Lecky and the advisory board went through many versions,
and many heartbreaks, on the way to getting a design approved -- and the
finished memorial shows the strain of the long, contentious process. It
cannot be said that this memorial possesses the artistic grandeur and
solemnity of the Lincoln Memorial. It does not have the aesthetic unity
of Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans wall. It is not quite so compelling a combination
of the noble and the everyday as Henry Merwin Shrady's Grant Memorial
at the other end of the Mall. But this is to put the new memorial in elevated
company -- together with the Washington Monument, these are our finest
expressions of memorial art. To say that the Korean War memorial even
comes close is a tribute.
Without question, its worst feature is a sequence of parallel strips of
polished black granite in the "field of service." Unattractive
and unneeded, they threaten to reduce the soldiers' advance to the metaphorical
level of a football game. And on one side of the field, they end in obtrusive,
triangular blocks of granite, put there to discourage visitors from walking
onto the granite ribbons. The junipers may in time cover the strips --
at least, one can hope -- but these bumps, unfortunately, will remain
The wall gets a mixed review. A clever if somewhat shameless adaptation
of Maya Lin's idea -- with faces rather than names etched in -- it honors
support troops, who always outnumber those on the front lines. It is beautifully
made. The heads are real ones from photographs in Korean War archives,
digitally altered so that the light source is always coming from the direction
of the flag. The etching is wonderfully subtle: The faces seem to float
in a reflective gray mist. The wall tugs the heartstrings, for sure, but
it's also a bit obvious, a bit much. It has the feel of a superfluous
Fortunately, the wall does not interfere too much with the sculpture,
which from the beginning has been the primary focus of this memorial.
It was an extraordinary challenge, one of the great figurative commissions
of the late 20th century, and Gaylord came through. To walk down from
the Lincoln Memorial and catch a first, apparitional glimpse of the soldiers,
as they stalk from under the tree cover, is quite a thrill. Even from
a distance and from the back, the gray figures are compelling.
And, as choreographed on that field, they become more compelling the closer
you get until, with a certain shock, you find yourself standing almost
within touching distance of the first figure: a soldier who involves you
in the movement of the patrol by turning his head sharply and signaling
-- Beware! -- with the palm of his left hand. He is a startling, daring
figure and, with his taut face and that universal gesture of caution,
he announces the beginning of a tense drama.
It is an old device, familiar in baroque painting and sculpture, to involve
the viewer directly in the action by posture, gesture, facial expression.
Gaylord adapted it masterfully here: The figures look through you or over
your shoulders, enveloping the space beyond the memorial with their eyes.
The air fairly crackles with the vitality of danger. The soldiers communicate
tersely among themselves, too -- in shouted commands or entreaties, and
subtly connected gestures and glances.
The most critical contact, though, may be that first one, between the
visitor and that initial soldier. His mouth is open -- you can almost
hear him hissing an urgent command. You slow down, and then you behold
the field before you. There is fatigue and alertness everywhere you look.
Each figure and each face is as charged as the next. Appropriately, the
gray metal surfaces are not polished and shined. Gaylord's rough treatment
of the matte surfaces adds to the nervous intensity of the piece.
It is quite a feat to give such figures such a feeling of movement --
they're only walking, after all, and they're carrying heavy burdens. But
Gaylord performed that feat, 19 times -- he proved himself a master of
contrapposto, another time-honored sculptural technique. Underneath the
gray ponchos and the weight of the stuff on their backs, these figures
twist from hip to shoulder and neck. Some shift dramatically, some just
enough, so that the ensemble takes on an extraordinary animation. Every
gesture seems perfectly calculated to reinforce the irony: These ghostly
soldiers in their windblown ponchos seem intensely real.
Dedicated to the concepts of service, duty and patriotism, the new memorial
stands in sharp contrast to its companion across the Reflecting Pool.
But the Korean and Vietnam memorials make a complementary, not a contradictory,
pair. In honoring the sacrifices of soldiers in Vietnam, Lin's great V-shaped
wall invokes a cycle of life and death, and physically reaches out to
the Mall's symbols of union and democracy.
The Korean War Veterans Memorial is more straightforward, and speaks directly
of a specific time and place. Yet it attains an unmistakable universality
of its own. Gaylord's soldiers (and Marines and airmen) served in Korea,
yes. But they also stand unpretentiously for the common soldiers of all
Map,,Dave Cook; PHOTO,,Dudley M. Brooks; PHOTO,,Robert A. Reeder CAPTION:
Sculptor Frank Gaylord's Korean War Veterans Memorial tour de force: The
column of 19 poncho-swathed soldiers is intensely real yet, at the same
time, a ghostly vision. CAPTION: PASSING MUSTER Workmen yesterday put
finishing touches on the Korean War Veterans Memorial, which will be dedicated
next Thursday. Despite its tortured history -- and a few
Memorial, which will be dedicated next Thursday. Despite its tortured
history -- and a few flaws -- the monument is a work of beauty and power,
a worthy addition to the Mall, critic Benjamin Forgey says. The memorial
includes a field of 19 sculptures of marching soldiers and a black granite
wall etched with faces of support troops. (Photo ran on page A01)