Last Thursday I went to the Kennedy Center. I was there merely to pick up tickets, but in the early morning it was quiet except for a lawnmower and a minimum of the unavoidable DC traffic. I was struck for the first time by the monumental quality of the building. Of course I can read, inscribed on the side, that the full name is the John F. Kennedy Memorial Center for the Performing Arts - no wonder it is commonly shortened! - but I had only been there before after dark. In the sunlight, it stands out brilliantly: a curious fusion of modern design and classical references. In its form it draws on the architectural traditions dating to Greek temples; in material it is often modern: the columns are steel, not marble. And the interior, of course is the series of lovely theaters, making the entirety a temple of sorts in form and function to Art in its Modern-Romantic conception.
The Lincoln Memorial is more familiar to most people; the striking outside, again reflecting classical temples; less remembered is the quiet inside. Where the Kennedy celebrates - gilding, and flags in all colors hanging from the ceiling - the Lincoln reflects. In a strange way, the interior of the Lincoln Memorial is an intimate space: a fitting monument for a great man who was, at least in legend, also very much a man of the people.
I also visited the World War II Memorial. It is different once again: an open-air space, proclaiming and preserving in wind and weather the uncommon achievements and valor not of one great titan but of thousands of "ordinary" people. A simple oval, with columns standing over it and water running through it; not the cheerful bubble of the Kennedy fountains, or the calm of the Reflecting Pool, but grandeur evoked by a small artificial fall and a single large pool with fountains arranged in classical patterns.
Today, four days later, is Memorial Day. Where I have briefly noted the contrasts between these three great structures, all are meant to endure - and more than that, to suggest endurance and timelessness by their very construction. Stone for the buildings, or steel: things meant to last. Water: essential for life. Gold: the symbol of timeless value.
We know the greatest monuments crumble in time, and the greatest human actors have had their flaws, but. It is appropriate for these buildings to be the best, the longest lasting, the most beautiful and stately, in order to commemorate great men and their accomplishments: men who achieved great human things and stand for us for virtues we should value: courage to do what is right, vision of lasting ideals. We do not remember these men, leaders and soldiers, for being "pretty okay people" but for what they did.
The challenge is not admiring the men, or their monuments. The challenge is not the artistic evaluation of these piles of stone. The challenge is to live up to the model.