Architect Sees World War II Memorial as 'Commission of a Lifetime'
PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Friedrich St. Florian is a product of the same country that bred Adolf Hitler. So it makes him feel especially proud to memorialize his former countryman's defeat.
The Austrian-born St. Florian was chosen four years ago as the architect for the World War II Memorial on the National Mall in Washington.
"I was born in an enemy country. Only in America can someone who came from that beginning do what I am doing," he said in a recent interview at his Providence office. "It would never happen in Germany or Japan."
But controversy has plagued the memorial since the 7.4-acre site was designated in 1995. Most criticism has been focused on the location, with skeptics saying it will spoil the unbroken sweep between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.
Yet detractors also have attacked the design, criticizing it as too big and too bland. Some have even accused St. Florian of mimicking the architectural symbolism of Hitler's Third Reich.
St. Florian calls that "hateful."
"For any architect this is the commission of a lifetime," he said. "It is especially so for an immigrant like me, someone who has embraced America and the American way of life."
A naturalized U.S. citizen, St. Florian says he remembers as a 12-year-old watching American soldiers liberate his Alpine village of Kaprul in 1945.
His father was not involved in the war and was not a member of the Nazi Party, he says, though members of his extended family fought on the German side.
More than a half-century later, the 68-year-old architect has apparently reached the end of a different battle, one that has raged for twice as long as the war itself.
On Memorial Day, President Bush signed legislation that could end the lawsuits and bureaucratic roadblocks that have bogged down the project for years. And on June 7, a federal judge rejected a request by opponents to postpone the construction.
In St. Florian's modest office in downtown Providence, drawings and scale models of the memorial -- its circle of granite pillars, its two arches signifying victory in Europe and the Pacific -- are scattered about.
He said the joy of being chosen from among 400 top architects to design the memorial quickly gave way to the realization that his plan would be subject to greater scrutiny than any of his other projects.
"At first, the tone of the criticism was very civil, very professional," says St. Florian, who speaks with an accent. "That changed."
His detractors include Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia, art critics from the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and dozens of other newspapers, and even some veterans.
Film critic Roger Ebert included a scathing commentary on St. Florian's design in a column panning the movie "Pearl Harbor," likening the monument to a "big, tacky mausoleum."
Former Sen. Bob Dole, a World War II veteran who helped raise $160 million to build the memorial, defended St. Florian's design in a guest column for The Washington Post.
"The memorial is the right statement in the right place," he wrote.
The memorial's most vocal enemy has been the National Coalition to Save Our Mall. The group, led by architectural historian Judith Feldman, sued to halt construction.
Feldman likens St. Florian's recessed plaza to a "sunken tomb," and has compared the four-story triumphal arches over the entrances to the monuments of Nazi Germany.
An editorial published in Architectural Record, whose 250,000 subscribers are primarily professional architects, opposed the site and St. Florian's design, sparking a flood of letters supporting the magazine's position.
"I don't believe this design will stir the kind of emotion befitting such a seminal event in our history," said Robert Ivy, the Record's editor in chief. "The veterans deserve more. This controversy deserves a great solution. This is a mediocre solution."
St. Florian, who also designed the sprawling Providence Place Mall and the Oslo Opera House in Norway, remains undaunted in the face of such criticism.
"A project like this deserves the utmost scrutiny and criticism," he said. "It is evidence of how strongly people feel on both sides."