When the National World War OneCentennial Commission announced a contest last year to design a memorial in Washington, D.C, more than 350 entries flooded in – including one from Joe Weishaar, a 25-year-old architect-in-training who had never been to the nation’s capital.
His proposed revamp of Pershing Park won judges over, describing a sprawling green space atop memorial walls that tell the story of the Great War through the words and faces of the Americans who fought it. Called “The Weight of Sacrifice,” Weishaar’s vision refreshes the urban park setting while adding commemorative elements to the site, located just a block from the White House.
His partner in the project is New York sculptor Sabin Howard, whose contributions will include a freestanding sculpture on the upper plaza called “Wheels of Humanity” and a relief wall of approximately 23 figures. Each cubic foot of the memorial will represent a U.S. soldier lost in the war: 116,516 in all.
Last October, The American Legion’s National Executive Committee passed Resolution 13, which supports construction of a national World War I memorial at Pershing Park. It will share the title with the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, Mo., which was designated the National World War I Museum and Memorial in 2014.
The estimated cost of the new memorial is $48 million, which will come entirely from private donations. The goal for beginning construction is November 2017, with a dedication on the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 2018.
Meanwhile, the project faces the regulatory hurdles of various local and federal bodies, such as the National Park Service, the Commission of Fine Arts and the D.C. Office of Historic Preservation.
Weishaar and Howard spoke with The American Legion Magazine about their design concept and why they’re eager to begin work on the project.
Joe, what about the commission’s design contest appealed to you?
Weishaar: I was looking for a competition and came across it online. I immediately was struck by two things. First, it was an open competition, not limited to design professionals. For something of this scope, that’s rare. Second, I said, “Is there not a national World War I memorial?” I did some quick research and saw that there’s not one in Washington, D.C., and something was triggered in me that said, “I want to be part of this process.”
Submitting a design was a first step. I didn’t necessarily see it going this far, but I was at a point in my career to enter and see how well I could do. Creating memorials or architecture that really invokes in people some sort of emotional response, so they have a connection with the work that goes beyond the bricks and mortar – that’s something I really want to pursue, and I saw the competition as a way to begin that process.
How did you go about creating a design concept for the memorial?
Weishaar: It started in my closet, really. I lived in this small apartment in Chicago and didn’t have an office space. For some reason there was an outlet in my closet, so I pushed all the clothes to one side and set the computer up on one of the shelves and worked that way for four months. It was the best space I could come up with.
The process I go through is a lot of sitting and observing, and that came to me through a lot of my education. I studied abroad in Mexico City and Rome, and the Mexico City studios had intensive eight-hour drawing sessions where we would be sat down somewhere in a plaza and they would say, “OK, see you in eight hours.” You get to know a lot more about a place and the way people actually use it sitting there than you would if you just walk past. That really influenced the process and the design in the end.
I started with a lot of sketches, just trying to build a concept. One of the detriments of the site right now is it’s very fractured. You’ve got the stair portion, you’ve got the Pershing memorial, you’ve got the planter box on the north side. Each of those things is great in its own regard, but as a whole they don’t really work together. So that early sketching was about creating a design that unifies all those things and also works with the Sherman memorial on the west, Freedom Plaza on the east and the Willard Hotel on the north. It’s not a memorial in a park or just a memorial. The two are really inseparable.
How about the sculptural elements?
Howard: We’re treating the sculpture differently than a lot of people have recently. I want to create something shocking, but shockingly beautiful. The thing I was talking about with Joe, with the relief, is how we make something that has that sense of the unattainable but is attainable. An analogy is taking the pediment from the Parthenon, which is 65 feet up in the air – that long frieze – and bringing it down to street level. When people walk up to it, they can reach out and touch it. It’s almost at eye level. You’re giving them an element that is noble, transformational – it talks about divine order, how things are assembled in the universe – and you put it at street level. So it’s not like this standard sculpture on a pedestal where you walk by and you see 25 of them. It brings a fresh energy and life to it by how it’s designed and presented.
Weishaar: In this case, we don’t have living veterans among us, but it gives the families of those who served in the war something to touch, to create their own memory of the event. Maybe they recognize in the faces Sabin sculpts someone they lost – a grandparent, a great-grandparent – who they can kind of reach out and touch.
What persuaded you to reach out to Sabin to strengthen your proposal?
Weishaar: Originally my design called for about 324 feet of linear sculpture, bas-relief, so I met with the commission and they said, “Have you considered bringing a sculptor in?” So I went back home and sat down at the computer. I don’t know any sculptors. I’m 25. Then I came across the National Sculpture Society website. They have about 120 contributing sculptors, so I sat down with a legal pad and started clicking one by one through their websites. About three hours in, I came across Sabin’s work and recognized that he’s got this amazing creative talent and artistic skill. If I could have done the sculptures myself, it’s what I would want to do. I sent him an email immediately, and he called me back two hours later. We’ve had a phone call about daily since.
Howard: The idea that Joe presented to me was to come up with a beginning, middle and end. I saw it from an artistic perspective: 1920 brings around the end of the concept of a universal harmony or a divine order, and if you look at the art world, you have the beginning of modern art. Things become more abstract, less cohesive. There’s more talk about alienation and separation, and there is no connection between the whole to a unified group. We had that before World War I. So the beginning is the mentality of people going into the war. The rhythms are more harmonious, beautiful and orderly, and as you progress to the right and move into the war they become more jagged, aggressive and sharper. The images become more chaotic, and the background is more damaged. You move from verdant green to a moonscape. Joe got together all these pictures for me so that I could put trenches and barbed-wire stuff on the right side, and on the left side you have trees that are still full of foliage.
How did the two of you collaborate as you advanced in the competition?
Weishaar: In the first go-around Sabin had 300 or 400 photographs, and you have to go through them and figure out what hits you the right way: “I have an emotional response to this, and I really feel more connected to this person, to the war, because of the way they’re positioned here.” That was really how we moved from Sabin’s thought process and his design stage to what got selected.
Howard: I have my technical skills, but I also come up with creative ideas very quickly. He called me, we talked, and then had two or three weeks before meeting. I came in with a whole composition; it wasn’t cohesive, but I put together three different groups with 22 figures. I did that in one or two days. So I have a creative element, and I think that’s important here. You’ve got to be flexible and be able to field an idea and move it into visual art really fast. You can’t go home and sit on it for 10 days. It’s got to be instantaneous, so your judgment has to be right on target.
He comes up with an original idea, and I go look at traditional things that fit that feeling we’re after. I go into the studio, take pictures of models, put them in uniforms and assemble them. I get the lighting, the morphology of the figure and the gesture down, and then shoot photos back to Joe.
Sabin, you’ve described this as an opportunity to do cutting-edge art.
Howard: I am extremely attracted to portraying this for some reason. World War I has this classical feel that gives me a really visceral response to it. That’s the last time classicism was alive. It just fits really well with my drawing style, too.
Weishaar: Something I recognized, going to Sabin’s website, is that people don’t draw like this anymore. He brings those things and a way of working that is so foreign to today.
Howard: We could bring it back, though. It’s disappearing more and more. It’s been taken out of art colleges. It’s my private dream that this project puts it back on the map – how important the actual human action of drawing is, the connection between head and eye and brain.
The figurative relief wall seems challenging.
Howard: It is a really complex focal composition, if you think about how many figures. You’ve got to integrate them all into one unique design. There’s a hierarchy of parts. I would say in the foreground you’re going to have a minimum of 25. And then you’re going to move into more figures in the background: horses, machinery, vegetation, going from foreground into background. These figures aren’t just standing there alone; they’re all relating to each other, so you’ve got a massive amount of movement in and out, from group to group.
There’s a vignette for maybe three figures, and then it moves to the next part of the story and the next part of the story. It’s like visual narrative. It’s not just figures on a board talking about World War I. It’s a story.
What does the World War I memorial project mean to each of you personally?
Weishaar: I don’t know when it’s really going to hit me, the full weight of everything this memorial stands for. But the greatest thing that’s happened so far are the random letters and photographs from people, of grandparents and great-grandparents. They’ve come in the mail with copies of stories. They say, “I haven’t even looked up the design of the memorial, but thank you for doing something.” For me, that’s it. This is a lot bigger than just what we end up building. We’re connecting to all these people. Hopefully the design only enhances that and we can reach out to even more, and really re-educate the American people about this event.
Howard: I agree with that. It’s a re-education of the American people on many levels. It’s a very natural fit for me. Artistically, I don’t want to create figures alone. I want to create figures that are interacting with each other, and there is a plethora of emotional things that this project has with the mad, sad, glad and scared elements that we all carry in the way we react to the world. This is perfect for it.
I have felt the weight of it. It’s like carrying the Titanic on your back, because what I have coming at me when we start is 14-hour days for years. There’s a lot of logistics, a lot of headaches. The first thing I said when we won is, “I have to do this right.” My art opened up in a huge way to it. It’s really important to me to show people that this kind of art can be done today. Just like it’s not a forgotten war, it’s not a forgotten art. The two go hand in hand.
There has been some resistance in the capital to the idea of changing Pershing Park. As the design team behind the memorial, what are your thoughts about it?
Weishaar: I do not advocate at all for leaving it as is. Either you’re going to restore that park to its rightful state as designed or we go ahead and do the memorial. But leaving it as is to further deteriorate is not an option.
Howard: The parks department is just not going to put up the money every year to maintain it. With the elevated space, Joe’s dealing with the idea of how it fits the community so they can use it. It’s not just this pretty thing. It’s really got to function. And I’m bringing the sculpture. The park has one sculpture, so we’re amplifying the cultural element by 1,000, and the park now all of a sudden gets three more uses. You can have all sorts of official events there. You can’t have official events there now. We bring many added bonuses to the table, and that’s a big deal, because it’s public land. Citizens should get their biggest bang for their buck, and our project does that.
With some bureaucratic hurdles remaining, is it possible the design will undergo some change?
Weishaar: Of course you hope that the design doesn’t change that much, because it comes from your passions. But we both came to this very open to that. If things have to change, they’ll change for the better; that’s the way I see it. When I worked, it was without a team, it was without input. Having all that feedback will only make the project stronger.
Howard: You’ve got to listen to the feedback and then bring your honesty about how it should be, so you’re balancing two things. I’m a specialist in this, so I have to balance their input and take suggestions and recreate it using my expertise. Like he said, it’s going to make it better. I’ve been on other projects, my figurative pieces, where I talk to the clients, and it always makes it better because they bring something to the table that’s not inside me. That kind of elevates the piece as you get more and more information.
Your work is cut out for you, with the centennial of the war’s end two years away.
Weishaar: We’ll push as hard as we can to hit the deadline.
Howard: Honestly, I think it depends on how fast we go through the acceptance policy with the government agencies. It’s out of our hands. We can bring our A-game and that’s it.
Learn more about the National World War I Memorial at Pershing Park: www.worldwar1centennial.org