Italy, Architecture, and The Vietnam Veterans Memorial – Paul Spreiregen – Italy 1954

Italy is an encyclopedia of architecture and urban design, the reason I wanted to live there and experience first hand those works that stand as living testimony to its many centuries of creativity. Its then contemporary works of architecture – this was the 1950s – were no less instructive and they, along with the treasures of the past, have never ceased to inform my work as an architect. Certainly not to copy, but rather emulate. I want to mention two examples: contemporary memorials related to World War II, and the practice of utilizing design competitions.

There were two such Italian memorials, both the products of design competitions.

One is just outside of Rome, the Ardeatine Caves.  It was created after the war to memorialize some 335 Italian civilians who were seized, brought to the caves and there murdered by the Nazis.  This was in reprisal for an attack on German officers in 1944, at the time of the Allies’ invasion of Italy.  The memorial consists of a large roof-like structure sheltering the graves of the 335 victims, its soft interior illumination provided only by a slim margin of light separating the roof from the ground.

The other is located in a cemetery in Milan, its purpose to honor the memory of Italians who had died in German concentration camps.  It is a cube formed by a system of three-dimensional crosses proportioned on the Golden Mean, its center containing a clay bowl, the type of bowl from which prisoners ate.  The bowl contains earth from all the camps.

These were very powerful experiences.  So. too, was my appreciation of design competitions as a democratic way of seeking design excellence.

My career as an architect has taken many paths and followed many interests.  Among them was further developing the technique for holding design competitions, about which I wrote a book.  Its publication and other related involvements happened to coincide with the effort to create a Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall in Washington.  I was asked to organize and manage the design competition for that memorial.  It was no small challenge and became the largest design competition held until that time, with 1,432 proposals.  The memorial that stands on the Mall today, the result of that effort, was dedicated in 1981.

I cannot say that my experiences in Italy were the sole basis for my later role with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial or with design competitions, but either can I deny that they didn’t inform them, if only to implant in my mind the seeds of such pursuits.

So the Vietnam Veterans Memorial owes some degree of gratitude to Italy.  So, too, is the Fulbright program that made my time in Italy possible to be appreciated for that and the innumerable benefits it has brought.

Paul Spreiregen – Fulbright to Italy 1954

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