Pittsburgh's recent memorials tug at emotions

Pittsburgh's Korean War memorial along the North Shore
Pittsburgh's Korean War memorial along the North Shore
Photo by Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
John Conti
| Saturday, May 24, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

War is so awful that we've developed over the years a system of cliches — both rhetorical and architectural — to deal with it and with the memorials that we erect out of respect for the men and women who have fought when called.

It used to be standard to build a stone podium and put a heroic statue of a battle-clad soldier on top of it. After the exceptionally moving Vietnam War Memorial was built in Washington, D.C., by architect Maya Lin, it became almost a requirement that modern memorials include a long black wall with names of veterans — or names of the dead — inscribed along it.

It's good to recognize that here in Pittsburgh we've avoided most — though not all — of those old and new cliches in the four significant war memorials built here in the last 20 years.

And so in among all the parades, picnics, speeches and laying of wreaths this Memorial Day, it would be worthwhile to visit these recent memorials — three on the North Shore between Heinz Field and PNC Park and one in Squirrel Hill. They vary somewhat in design quality, but you will find all of them effective at eliciting an emotional response.

The Holocaust Memorial in Squirrel Hill is the simplest and, probably for that reason, the most affecting of all. Set on a well-landscaped hillside at the intersection of Beechwood Boulevard and Forward Avenue, it consists of nothing but walls of glass blocks containing the pull-tops of soft-drink cans — six million of them.

The use of pull tops to represent Jews killed by the Nazis during World War II may at first thought seem preposterous. But when you learn that the tops were collected over 17 years by students, you realize that the collecting itself must have taught them well.

But even if you don't know that, to stand at the memorial and inspect just one of the glass blocks will move you deeply. Most of the pull tops are plain aluminum, but sprinkled among them every once in a while is a red or blue or green one — effectively reinforcing in your mind that each and every pull top represents an individual who was killed.

The World War II memorial on the North Shore continues this picture, and tells you that that there were 60 million people total — both civilians and combatants on all sides — killed across the world during the war.

This memorial consists of tall aluminum ribs set in a circle — an abstraction that in itself has become something of a cliche. But it transcends that, as the ribs frame translucent photographic images that call out the elements of the war, both at home in Pittsburgh and in Europe and Asia.

The key events of the war from the American side are illustrated in large three-panel photographs, from Pearl Harbor to Hiroshima. In between those are about 100 photographs that show the effect of the war not just on veterans, but also on Pittsburghers here at home during the all-out mobilization the war required. Large landing ships for tanks being launched from shipyards on Neville Island are pictured along with images of the armor-producing Homestead Steel Works. Not neglected is the Jeep, which was developed in Butler.

The architects made good use of this site — on a level area above the Allegheny — by aligning its two entrances on an axis with the fountain at Point State Park across the river. At one entrance, they have placed a simple addition to the memorial — a low plinth with a bronze flag folded in a triangle with the stars facing up — the traditional memorial to a dead soldier.

The texts here can't tell the full story of the war, and young people visiting this memorial would probably benefit from a guide, but any more text would have diminished the memorial's impact.

The Korean War memorial further along on the North Shore has exactly that problem: too much text. A long chronology of the war is inscribed on bronze plaques leading to it — though this text might be excused because this is often called the “forgotten war” because many don't know its details. Still, this memorial is too confusing to be effective. There are too many plaques remembering not veterans, but the folks who contributed to building the memorial. And there is a county-by-county roll call of names, but it's unclear if these are all who served or those who died. Still, the ascending granite blocks of the memorial itself are appealing, as is the landscaping.

Like the Holocaust Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial doesn't need texts to make it forceful. It has three simple sculptures — a veteran reunited with his family and then a soldier on one side of the memorial and his wife or girlfriend on the other side, striving to meet. The personal messages embodied in these simple statues go far beyond what the history books might tell you about any war, not just the one in Vietnam.

All these monuments are meaningful. But recognize on this Memorial Day, as we continue to fight overseas, that we really can never do enough, say enough, or build enough to totally honor our veterans and recall the sacrifices they made.

John Conti is a former news reporter who has written extensively over the years about architecture, planning and historic-preservation issues.

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