May 29th, 2022 marks the 18th anniversary of the dedication of the World War II Memorial in Washington, DC, and in honor of the anniversary, the Cartographic Branch would like to highlight a particular set of records relating to the very conceptualization of the monument itself. These records, found in RG 117: Drawings for the National World War II Memorial Design Competition, are a glimpse into the minds of 400 American designers offering a view of their visions of how best to honor those who served during World War II.
It all began on May 25, 1993, when then-President Bill Clinton signed into law Public Law 103-32, which was “To authorize the construction of a memorial on Federal land in the District of Columbia or its environs to honor members of the Armed Forces who served in World War II and to commemorate United States participation in that conflict.” But, once a monument has been authorized, have you ever wondered how our national monuments are designed? Who has the honor of creating the actual, physical design of the monument and what is that process like?
Well, much like other monuments including the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, a design contest was held to create the World War II Memorial. According to the U.S. General Services Administration, the only requirements to enter the competition were that the designer be over 18 years old and a United States citizen. There was no entry fee to participate in the competition.
The competition took place in two distinct phases. The first phase was intended to cast a very wide net and get the most participants possible. Once all of the submissions had been received, then at least five would be chosen to continue on to the second phase of the competition. During the second phase, the top designers who were selected would each be invited to then present a detailed concept design . All told, 400 designs were submitted for the competition, each submitted anonymously, with the designer’s name in a sealed envelope attached to the back of the submission.
As you scroll through these images, you will notice that many, though not all, of the designers included some sort of design philosophy statement surrounding their design choices and motifs, providing an explanation of what they were thinking as they were designing and the emotions that they hoped to evoke from visitors. Many of the artists seemed to move towards themes of commitment to service and to a sense of national unity. Others, as seen below in submission #266, wanted to physically draw people into interacting with the spaces, and other designers wished to portray those left behind on the home front as their loved ones went off to war, as can be seen in the illustration above (submission #282).
Yet other entries wanted to incorporate interactive technology and that could be utilized by the visiting public to enhance their experience. Entry # 267, below, proposed utilizing a computer system that would allow, “any Veteran from any war with the use of names and information in computerized system (to) geographically pinpoint land, sea, and air battles in which he or she was involved”.
The following submissions, #272, 280, 376, and 379 all envisioned giant spaces that sought to try to encompass the totality of World War II and to provide an immersive experience for visitors to the memorial.
Submissions #272 and 280 both wanted to literally surround visitors in the experience of visiting the memorial through the use of structures including glass domes, and underground passages leading from one section or building component of the memorial to another. Each concept involved a journey, of sorts, through various events or stages of the war, seemingly with the idea in mind that a war is not made up of a single event, but rather a series of events that are all connected together, as noted in the “Narrative” of the drawing above.
From the more enclosed spaces just visited, we move on to concepts involving vast open spaces where visitors are invited to roams the grounds of the grounds of the memorial. Though #376 and 379 do both contain buildings and an educational component that is mentioned in the philosophical statement, the concept art focuses much more heavily on the vastness of the outdoor structures, providing high level overviews of the general area that the memorial would inhabit. Submission #376, in particular, gives that sense of monumental architecture based on the relative size of the visitors to the columns that they are pictured moving among.
In addition to huge, open spaces these two designers also took into account time as an element of the experience in their designs, as they both specifically envisioned night visitors to the memorial in their concept drawings.
While some of the drawings offered highly detailed visions of the World War II memorial, others offered a higher level, more generalized view of the space. Submission #400 offers this type of view, giving us a glimpse of a truly vast memorial made up of several different buildings and large scale sculptures spread across the site.
Finally, the designer behind Submission #193 did something truly unique in that they included a three dimensional element to their concept design drawing in the form of a prism affixed to the artwork itself. Another unique element of this design is that this monument is not always in a state of completeness. According to the designer, “The memorial would be complete only on those regular occasions when the sun’s rays pass through the instrument and project the rainbow’s image on the Washington Monument.”
 https://www.congress.gov/103/statute/STATUTE-107/STATUTE -107-Pg90.pdf
 “Changes to WWII Memorial Design Will Ensure Fair and Open Competition”. https://www.gsa.gov/about-us/newsroom/news-releases/changes-to-wwII-memorial-desing-will-ensure-open-and-fair-competition