Remembrance days

Plans for an American Second World War memorial in Washington have been condemned as "imperial kitsc

The recent opening of Daniel Libeskind's Imperial War Museum North might suggest a complete triumph for abstract and contemporary design in memorialising the past. From Rachel Whiteread's Holocaust sculpture in Vienna through the 168 empty chairs in Oklahoma City that mark the victims of Timothy McVeigh's bombing and on to Libeskind's own angular Jewish Museum in Berlin, attempts by modern artists to provide fitting expression for the horrors of history have been widely acclaimed.

But as Libeskind's aluminium sphere ruptured by violence is sparking admiration in Manchester, in another city a very different idea about remembering war is gradually taking shape. Some 57 years after the Second World War ended, work is under way in Washington DC on America's National World War II Memorial. Due to be finished in 2004, the monument will bear little resemblance to the ponderous, low, dark granite of the Vietnam Veterans Wall. Visitors will not be confronted by anything like the shocking mass of the exterior of Washington's other ground-breaking postwar architectural achievement, the Holocaust Memorial Museum. Instead, they will enter a classical landscaped area that would not have looked out of place in ancient Rome.

As envisaged in the winning design by the architect Friedrich St Florian, the World War II Memorial will consist of an open plaza surrounded by 56 granite pillars. These represent the 48 states, the seven territories and the District of Columbia that made up the wartime United States. At the north and south ends will stand two 43ft-high arched pavilions symbolising the Atlantic and Pacific theatres of war. All this will be set within just over seven acres of landscaped gardens and pools, on Washington's National Mall. It will be "big, white and grand", as one reporter put it, on seeing the first design.

Subsequent architectural critics have been harsher: "Imperial kitsch," said one. "The worst kind of authoritarian architecture", "the architecture of 1930s-era fascism", or even more wounding, "worthy of Albert Speer's Germania" - these are some of the comments that have bedevilled St Florian's work since it was announced as the winning entry in 1996.

At best, the project looks like a memorial built just before the war started, when modern classical was still the vogue for grand public buildings such as federal headquarters and commemorative statues. In these post-cold war days, only Baghdad tries that sort of hyperbole - and very unconvincing it is.

Controversy, however, is nothing new to American war memorials. Maya Lin's minimalist Vietnam memorial was labelled a "degrading ditch" when it was first opened, and rejected by veterans' associations as too funereal. Twenty-five years later, a replica of the memorial, which has been taken around the country for those unable to make it to the city, still reduces visitors to tears.

Lin's work was a turning point for memorialisation. This successful representation of a politically and morally ambiguous war revived the idea of finding meaningful ways to remember conflict. The men on horseback may have gone, but contemporary aesthetics could now find a new dignity for the battle-scarred citizens. The Vietnam Wall unleashed a wave of challenging buildings to commemorate the fading battles and tragedies. This is why the Imperial War Museum has been greeted as a triumph and the Washington design dismissed as an anachronism.

In an age of contested public space, even well-intentioned plans to honour the American participants in the Second World War have provoked objections (as did the apparently straightforward proposals for Trafalgar Square's fourth plinth and Diana's memorial in Britain). St Florian's project faced judicial suspensions, obligatory redesigns and scaling down, even after initial work had begun. A campaign group called "Save our Mall" argued passionately that the pillars and arch would drive a wedge between the Washington Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial - breaking the connection between the nation's most important symbols of democracy. Also, to the anger of African American groups, the new site will encroach on the hallowed area in front of the Lincoln Memorial, where in 1963 Martin Luther King made his "I have a dream" speech.

It is clearly a shame that no statue or symbol of remembrance was erected earlier to the US victims and veterans of 1941-45. But then memorials often take time. Cenotaphs in English villages to mark "the war to end all war" were still being raised in the 1930s when the rumblings of impending conflict returned. In Washington, the delay of 50 years in honouring the war effort cannot somehow be "erased" by building in a style more suited to the capital's past.

In its day, neoclassicism was the architecture of progress. It was the Enlightenment's response to the excess and monarchical irregularity of the rococo. The lines of its design were proof of the harmony of nature's universal laws. The city of Washington was one such classical creation. Many of its subsequent buildings and statues resonate with the apparently timeless values of sacrifice, heroism, the nobility of war, the sanctity of peace.

But many of those values have been undermined by events that have taken place since the end of the Second World War: McCarthyism, the end of segregation, Watergate, the Korean war, the failed raid on Somalia -a lot had changed, even before 11 September. Today, St Florian's bombastic design seems entirely out of place. The imperial grandeur that once represented the triumph of laws over tyrants now feels corporate and anonymous. It resonates with power, but not with the memory of the ordinary citizens who fought in the war.

To the opponents of the scheme, this is because it is a project dreamt up in the closed corridors and expensive offices on Capitol Hill. Ever since the controversy began, critics have accused the memorial's backers of fixing matters without public consultation. The chairman of the campaign behind the memorial is the former Republican presidential candidate Senator Bob Dole, himself a decorated Second World War veteran.

The resulting advertising push to win approval used Tom Hanks as a celebrity endorsement. Recent Second World War epics, including Pearl Harbor, Band of Brothers and U-571, mean there is little danger that American youth will forget the war. The greater risk is that they will inherit the rose-tinted version that fills our screens.

Unfortunately, in creating a pastiche of classical architecture, St Florian does nothing to contradict the pseudo-realism of the film version. As Herbert Muschamp wrote in the New York Times, the memorial puts "sentiment where knowledge ought to be".

Perhaps, then, in the heart of Washington's most prominent avenue, this will be Private Ryan's final victory over GI Joe. The temporary lull in Hollywood's fantasy projection of global conflict and military history, after the events of 11 September, seems to have lasted just a few months. Work began on preparing the site only a few weeks before the Pentagon was hit by terrorists. But the world in which this memorial will finally emerge in two years' time is very different from the one in which it was conceived, let alone from the events it seeks to mark.

This is the ideal moment, according to many Americans, to cast in stone their commitment to freedom and unity. Strange then, that the memorial given this task has been seen as a misrepresentation of democracy, rather than its embodiment.

Supporters of St Florian's design claim that it is merely trying to match Washington's existing neoclassical setting. But memorials are a dialogue between past and present. They have to look forward as well as back to the events they seek to eternalise - otherwise they are not memorials, but epitaphs.

The World War II Memorial is intended to be "a timeless reminder of the moral strength and awesome power that can flow when a free people are at once united and bonded together in a common and just cause". In the 21st century - an age of rogue states, global terrorism and confusion at the heart of the world's superpower - building a series of neoclassical arches and pillars is not an act of memory, but a disturbing act of nostalgia. Which is surely the wrong message to draw from the 20th century's most heinous conflict.

Matthew Dodd is a producer on Radio 3's Night Waves