The Evolution of War Memorial Design

(Given the ongoing interest in the subject of memorials, I am posting this July 28, 2010 story from Cincinnati CityBeat about the Bartholomew County Memorial for Veterans in Columbus, Indiana. It was constructed in 1997 and incorporates a lot of the new ideas about memorials that are now prevalent.)The Evolution of War Memorial Design. It deserves wider attention. — SR)


A couple Saturdays ago, I went on an Architectural Foundation of Cincinnati-sponsored excursion to Columbus, Ind., a city just 90 minutes away that has developed an international reputation for its Modernist architecture.

Besides the buildings, I was particularly moved by the Bartholomew County Memorial for Veterans in the city’s downtown. Constructed in 1997, it smartly reflects lessons learned about veterans’/war memorials in the years since Maya Lin’s landmark Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated in Washington in 1982. Further, it is the work of architects.

As it turns out, a Cincinnati native, Maryann Thompson, designed Columbus’ memorial with her then-husband and partner, Charles Rose, after winning a competition. Now based in Cambridge, where she has her own firm and is an adjunct professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, she grew up in Wyoming and, after her parents moved to Indian Hill when she was in 10th grade, graduated from Seven Hills School.

She was a finalist for the Art Academy’s redesign of an old Over-the-Rhine structure into its school and has been contacted by Playhouse in the Park about a (now-apparently stalled) expansion, but this is her closest project.

The memorial features 25 limestone pillars arranged close enough together in courthouse square to form a kind of stone grove— a sanctuary — that envelopes you once inside. The purpose was to remember the 156 county veterans who died during 20th-century wars as a new century was about to begin.

The veterans’ names are part of the memorial. But what is so emotionally powerful is that the pillars have been carved with passages from the letters and journals the soldiers sent home, sometimes just days before their death. Or, in some cases, it features military notices to a family about a son missing or killed in action. This is a silent memorial, a remembrance of the deceased, but it also approximates a living, oral history. You can hear those soldiers talking as you read their letters home.

Though a spiritual cousin, this differs from Lin’s Vietnam memorial in not making the architecture so subtly part of the landscape. But Thompson and Rose are not seeking to fill up space with ostentatious monumentality and outdated heroic figuration, a trait of older war memorials. Rather, they take advantage of verticality to tell stories and infuse the limestone with humanity.

When Lin (a native of Athens, Ohio, by the way) finished her Vietnam Memorial in 1982, it was a real game-changer. Non-representational in nature, it consists of a black-granite wall containing the names of those veterans who died. Certainly after the disastrous Vietnam War a new kind of memorial was needed. By the 1980s, we sensed the modern war experience is at least as much about loss and remembrance as victory. Lin’s work captured that. And nothing has happened since to change that view. After her accomplishment — and the powerfully enthusiastic public response to it, especially from Vietnam veterans — more traditional representational-realism statuary no longer rang very true. (Regrettably, not everyone learned that lesson. An unfortunate example is the circle of life-size soldiers that are part of Blue Ash’s literal-minded and excessive 1991 Bicentennial Veterans Memorial.)

Coincidentally, on the bus trip home from Columbus a movie played about the making of Lin’s Vietnam memorial. It told how the process wasn’t easy for her — those afraid of change or who feared her wall might be disrespectful fought hard and won some changes. But history was on her side and you can see that, on a smaller scale, in the Bartholomew County Memorial for Veterans. It’s worth a visit to Columbus in its own right.

Finding Architecture’s Soul in ‘Columbus’

The new dramatic film sees in Columbus, Ind. a beautiful but haunted metaphor for life.


A Cbp0920Columbus0920El CopyHaley Lu Richardson and John Cho star in the dramatic film.PHOTO: ELISHA CHRISTIAN / COURTESY OF SUPERLATIVE FILMS AND DEPTH OF FIELD

If you’re interested in architecture, you may know that Columbus, Ind. — a small city just 90 miles west of Cincinnati — is one of America’s most important showcases for Modernist buildings.

That, in itself, makes Columbus special. But now, a new movie called Columbus — a dramatic film, not a documentary — finds an even deeper meaning in the city’s commitment to newness in architecture. It sees in Columbus a beautiful but haunted metaphor for life and the hopes, dreams, delusions, personal struggles and quest for meaning we all have. The film, which is one of the year’s best, opens Friday at the Esquire Theatre. I’d give it an A.

A little background on Columbus the city is appropriate. As the Visit Columbus Indiana website explains, the city “is one of the rare places on Earth where the idea that architecture can improve the human condition has been put to the test.” The force behind this was the late Irwin Miller, a forward-thinking industrialist (his family founded the city’s Cummins Engine Co.) who saw in Modernist architecture a symbol of a better future. Its openness — a reliance on glass, love of clean and uncluttered lines, disavowal of pretentious decoration — seemed part of its search for truthfulness.

The first building that Miller wanted, Eliel Saarinen’s 1942 First Christian Church, has a subtle stone cross embedded in the limestone façade that’s so mirage-like it could float out and hover in the air. In 1957, Saarinen’s son Eero designed Miller’s home, which now is open to the public and has become recognized as one of America’s most important post-World War II homes. Other important architects who have done public structures in Columbus include I.M. Pei, Harry Weese, Robert Venturi, Deborah Berke and Gunnar Birkerts.

To this heritage now comes the movie Columbus, directed and written by Kogonada — the single name favored by a South Korea-born filmmaker who is an acolyte of the great Japanese director Yasujiroō Ozu (1953’s Tokyo Story). He clearly loves and dwells on the architecture — for instance, he sees in the tall and seemingly endless spire of Eero Saarinen’s 1964 North Christian Church, which otherwise has an unassuming exterior, a kind of protector for all who live below it. But Kogonada also has an existential question for Modernism — and, thus, for Columbus: What good is its optimism against the inevitability of death and disease? Does such hopefulness make Modernism — and Columbus — just another delusion about our ability to control our futures?

Such philosophical depth and complexity demand a lot from a movie. But Columbus succeeds smashingly, hugely aided by cinematographer Elisha Christian. It is naturalistically Minimalist in style, with quiet dialogue, introspective music and environmental sounds, long takes and pronounced edits. Yet it’s nevertheless emotional because the screenplay is wise in its understanding of the human condition.

The film features John Cho (Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle) as the estranged Korean-born son of a noted Korean architectural historian living in the U.S. His father’s grave illness brings the son to Columbus to stand vigil, and he’s angry about it. He seems to hate architecture, although maybe he’s just angry about his father’s devotion to this city at his son’s expense.

But in Columbus, waiting around for his father to die, he meets a young woman from a working-class background who is struggling to live better. Played incredibly soulfully by Haley Lu Richardson, she has developed a fascination with the mysteries of Modernism. To her, it is truly frozen poetry — and she’s trying to find a vocabulary to express that.

Though there is an age difference, they develop a friendship. Her interest seems to point to a promising future in architecture, but she’s afraid to leave a single mother (Michelle Forbes) recovering from drug use and a hard life in general.

Their stories play out quietly, but profoundly. One of the film’s last shots is of the bright red steel beams of a Modernist bridge. It is to be admired as an art object, but also something you have to cross when you come to it. Columbus memorably takes you to it.


Noah Purifoy Exhibit Showcases a Great Artist

I believe you’ll leave Junk Dada impressed — not just by the quality of the artist’s work and vision, but also by his importance to the art and American social and political thought of our times.


MARCH 23, 2016 


The current 30 Americans show at the Cincinnati Art Museum offers a good chance to see work by key African-American contemporary artists.

All well and good, but you should also definitely get to the Wexner Center for the Arts in nearby Columbus by April 10 to see the retrospective show of another contemporary black artist, the late Noah Purifoy.

It’s called Junk Dada, and I believe you’ll leave it impressed — not just by the quality of his work and vision, but also by his importance to the art and American social and political thought of our times.

The Wexner is the only museum to present this exhibition besides the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which organized it. That speaks to how little-known the Alabama-born Purifoy is outside of Los Angeles, where he lived and worked for much of his career. (He lived and worked as a social worker in Cleveland before moving to L.A. in 1950; he died at age 87 in 2004.)

But it doesn’t speak to how powerful and influential an artist he was, creating assemblage, collage, sculpture and environmental installations in a way that acknowledged outsider art but was also the intentional conceptual work of a trained artist.

Further, his art was community-based while also being forcefully individualistic. He eventually moved to the remote California town of Joshua Tree, where he used his vision and knack for salvaging material to create a new arts-based community in the desert. His Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum now outlives him, as part of the nonprofit Noah Purifoy Foundation.

I’d compare him favorably with Robert Rauschenberg, David Smith, Thornton Dial and Donald Judd, and also to today’s artists who reclaim throwaway objects, like Mark Bradford (who is in 30 Americans) and the Ghana-born El Anatsui.

His journey as an artist cries out for a motion picture. After moving to L.A., he received a B.F.A. at the Chouinard Art Institute, which is now the California Institute of the Arts. He was almost 40 when he graduated. With his background in both art and social work, he came out of school with a keen interest in non-traditional, socially relevant object making.

Junk Dada brings together some 70 of his pieces, showing off his gift in such works as the 1958 surrealist woodwork “Untitled (Bed Headboard)”; 1989’s wearily splendorous assemblage “Rags and Old Iron I (After Nina Simone)”; and 1967’s wonderfully colorful, mixed-media “Untitled,” which uses the frame of an umbrella as a starting point.

The show has much information and photographs about the Outdoor Museum as well as one of his greatest projects — organizing the 1966 traveling exhibit 66 Signs of Neon.

At the time, he was director of L.A.’s Watts Towers Arts Center, drawing inspiration from that monumental creation of the visionary Simon Rodia while also working to connect this idiosyncratic work of outsider art to the black community surrounding it.

After the Watts rebellion/riots of 1965, Purifoy and other artists created 66 sculptures from the debris. The exhibit features a photograph of two women walking past a mountain of post-riots wreckage to show the challenge. Anyone who has ever dismissed the importance of “junk” as art-making material should sense the meaning that Purifoy instilled into it here. The project is a landmark, combining foreboding about the fire next time with hope for a better future.

I stumbled onto Purifoy’s 10-acre Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum accidentally when visiting the nearby national park in the early-2000s. He had moved there in 1989, starting a new chapter in his life in a vastly different environment from urban L.A.

He had a tract of relatively barren land that was filled with salvaged, reassembled material that served as a portal into an alternate version of the “real” landscape. He transformed it all into a village where the pieces of wood and metal, the salvaged toilets and bowling balls and who knows what else all fit together. There were other people there, walking and talking, treating the site like both a museum and an amusement park.

It took awhile to learn about his background and understand the intellectual underpinnings and decades of experience behind his work.

After Junk Dada, I believe he’s so important he should have his own museum. Fortunately, in Joshua Tree he does. Everyone should go. More information: