Placemaking and Peacemaking at a Living Memorial

Memorials are a delicate balancing act, an uncomfortable abstraction made real in stone and bronze. They must pay tribute to the dead while relaying history and expressing hope to future generations of the living. They must eloquently and at once tell a story, create a memorable place and mark a moment in time. Those were the challenges faces by the team developing the new American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial in Washington, D.C.—but with a substantial addition. This memorial was designed to celebrate the living—the more than 3.5 million veterans living with disabilities as a result of their service.

The memorial was a 2015 SEGD Global Design Awards winner in the Public Installation category.

SEGD Fellow Jerome Cloud, principal of Cloud Gehshan Associates (Philadelphia) was a key design team member for the memorial, which opened in late 2014 after almost two decades in the making. Cloud Gehshan was brought on to the team to develop the interpretive approach, content and design for the memorial–“essentially, to determine how best to tell the veterans’ stories,” says Cloud.

He joined the team led by Michael Vergason Landscape Architects Ltd. (Alexandria, Va.), which won a 2003 competition to design the memorial. Vergason and the staff of the Disabled Veterans LIFE Memorial Foundation (established in 1998 to raise funds for the memorial) worked with a multidisciplinary team that included Cloud Gehshan as well as architects Shalom Baranes Associates, public artist Larry Kirkland, research firm History Associates and others.

The memorial is located on a wedge-shaped, 2.4-acre site adjacent to the National Mall, about a quarter-mile from and in full view of the U.S. Capitol. An awkward site bounded on all sides by roads or highway access lanes, its redeeming feature is its site lines to the building where wars are debated and authorized.

“If there’s a single aspect of the site that drove the design…it’s the strong visual connection to the Capitol,” Michael Vergason said during the site’s development. “The events that happen there have direct impact on the quality of disabled veterans’ lives.”

Finding their voices
To give form to the memorial, the team had to first understand and communicate with the many interest groups involved in its development, including more than 50 veterans groups representing all branches of the U.S. military and many different conflicts and wars. In addition, the memorial needed to represent different types of disabilities, from those that are visible to those whose effects aren’t obvious to others.

History Associates conducted deep research using books, newspapers, magazines, periodicals, websites, journals, blogs, letters, a wide range of historical collections and archives to locate and catalog the voices, recollections and memories of disabled veterans across all wars. As part of the research, more than 600 quotations were collected and documented, covering all branches of service and the full continuum of American military conflict from the Revolutionary War to the present.

Cloud Gehshan’s primary role was to develop an interpretive content framework to help catalog and understand the diverse experiences and challenges faced by American disabled veterans. A second objective was to help the design team better understand and define potential messages that might be appropriate for inclusion in the memorial. The interpretive team conducted a series of workshops and discussions to identify the most powerful quotations that would be most broadly representative of all disabled veterans. Seventy-two quotations were initially selected; this was reduced to 60, then later to the final 24 quotes that appear at the memorial.

Giving form to their voices
Visitors enter the memorial from the northern end off the National Mall, first encountering a star-shaped fountain with an eternal flame hovering over its center. The points of the star represent the five branches of the U.S. military, and water from the fountain spills into a large reflecting pool bordered by gingko and pond cypress trees. The landscape architects chose maidenhead (gingko biloba) trees for their clear golden leaves that typically fall around Veteran’s Day.

From the fountain, visitors move along the water’s edge to the Wall of Gratitude, a 200-ft.-long white granite wall that formally identifies the memorial. The memorial name was V-cut into the white Vermont granite by Nicholas Benson of the John Stevens Shop, stone carvers since 1705. The words of George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower set the tone for the memorial and its mission. Cloud Gehshan chose typefaces accordingly, opting for Trajan for the memorial name, Palatino for quotations and Myriad for attributions.

At the southern end of the triangular site is the major interpretive component: 8.5-ft.-high walls of glass, consisting of 48 individual panels—each made of five layers of ¾-in. ultra-clear Starphire glass. It is these glass walls that capture the voices of disabled veterans—containing personal stories of courage and extraordinary sacrifice made in the service of their country. Some etched on the surface, others embedded inside the layers of glass, the images and text are haunting.

The montages are brought to life by changing day and evening light that illuminates inverted bronze silhouettes behind the glass and passes through to powerful effect. The voices and images are constantly shifting and further animated by reflections and shadows of visitors, capturing a sense of loss and hope, struggle and strength.

Ultimately, the memorial conveys the ongoing costs of human conflict. The integration of message, image, form, light and movement creates a memorable experience for visitors and underscores the sentiment expressed in one of the quotations, this one by writer José Narosky: “In war, there are no unwounded soldiers.”


Client: Disabled Veterans LIFE Memorial Foundation
Location: Washington, D.C.
Project Area: 2.4 acres
Open Date: October 2014
Budget: $86 million

Design Team:

Michael Vergason Landscape Architects: Michael Vergason (principal in charge), Doug Hayes (senior associate), Beata Corcoran (project coordinator)
Cloud Gehshan Associates: Jerome Cloud (principal in charge); Ian Goldberg (senior designer); Lily Chong, Matt Cavalier, Leslie Bowman, Sophie Xu, Steve Ricci, Kate Otte (designers)

Larry Kirkland Studios: Larry Kirkland

Consultants: Claude R. Engle (lighting consultant), History Associates Inc. (historic consultant, quotations), The John Stevens Shop (stone carving), Fluidity Design Consultants (reflecting pool), Technifex (ceremonial flame), Eckersley O’Callaghan (structural engineer), Rummel Klepper & Kahl (site engineering), WSP USA (MEP)

Fabrication:  Walla Walla Foundry (bronze sculptures), Savoy Studios (glass fabrication management), Hartung Glass Industries (glass panel cutting, tempering), Moon Shadow Glass (glass panel etching), Glass Strategies (glass panel lamination)

Photos: Craig Collins, Shalom Baranes Associates

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