Wednesday, February 15, 2006

What People Get Wrong about the JFK Memorial

In the wake of 9/11, with all its discussions of memorials, I found myself wanting to revisit another memorial of a violent event that also tore the social fabric of this country. The John F. Kennedy Memorial in Dallas is one block east of Dealey Plaza, where the 1963 assassination took place. The design, by Philip Johnson, is simple, an open-air room formed by massive concrete walls that appear to float above the ground. Within, a granite slab bears the name of the president. It is all, sad to say, poorly done. ... The Kennedy Memorial in Dallas marks a particular place where an event took place — as opposed to the British JFK Memorial, say, which honors only the memory of the slain president.
The key to understanding the JFK memorial in Dallas is in this last sentence. The memorial marks a place; it does not solely honor a man. And that place is Dallas, Texas.

JFK's grave is not in Dallas. JFK's spirit is not in Dallas. Visitors to Dallas hoping to find something of the man won't find it in Dallas - not in 1963, not in 2006. The emptiness of the memorial - no statue, no bust, no plaques, only that black granite slab bearing the President's name - conveys the emptiness of the city itself of all things Kennedy. He is not here. He never was of Dallas.

Hostility was in the air in Dallas that autumn in 1963. The crowds lining the street greeted the Presidential motorcade warmly, but the underlying tension is obvious in the words of Nellie Connally, wife of Governor John Connally, riding with the President. Her last words to the President were, "Mr. President, you can't say that Dallas doesn't love you."

That tension, that hostility, is captured by Philip Johnson in the JFK memorial architecture. The massive concrete walls surrounding the granite slab shut out the city. Standing inside that empty room, the city and the hostility are blocked out, the high walls screening even the cold stare of the skyscrapers, until only the blue sky above offers an escape from the memory of that oppressive hostility on the day of the assassination.

The JFK memorial in Dallas leaves visitors feeling cold and empty. What they don't appreciate is how appropriate those feelings are for a memorial to JFK in downtown Dallas. It is all, sad to say, very well done.