Memorial Design

The Air Force Memorial is rooted in the necessary symbolic transition of making the medium of the Air Force visible. The Navy has the medium of water, which can be shown in fountains. The Army has the medium of land, which can be referenced with mountains and plains. The Air Force has the medium of air, which is much more difficult to illustrate than water or land. The core of this effort lies in making air tangible and making technology felt. Before the Memorial could take shape, the critical component, the site, had to be analyzed for its informational and formational impact. In this case, the promontory overlooking Washington brings to bear the possibility of launching the Memorial through the edge condition it presents.

The Memorial itself is 270 feet high and appears to be soaring. Its array of arcs against the sky evokes a modern image of flight by jet and space vehicles. At the same time, it enshrines the past in permanent remembrance of the pioneers of flight who came before, and pays homage to those of the future.

Once the decision was made to incorporate vertical elements, the number three became important. “Three” is resonant with significant associations for the Air Force, including the three core values of today: Integrity first, Service before self, and Excellence in all we do. It is also the smallest number of elements needed to define and enclose a space. The spires are asymmetrical and dynamic. Each is a different height, causing the view of the Memorial to be different at every angle.

“The new design gracefully evokes the symbolism associated with flight and with the United States Air Force. The design also enhances this already spectacular site on the escarpment of Washington’s Monumental Core. The proposed Air Force Memorial will provide a striking gateway into the Nation’s Capital from Virginia.”
The National Capitol Planning Commission
March 12, 2003

The Memorial is scaled for visibility over street infrastructure. Its height was determined to be at least equal to building heights visible on the Arlington horizon, from both near and distant views. The proportional relationship of the height of the spires to width of their base is intended to make the Memorial stand out as a marker for the I-395 entry to Washington. At the same time, care is taken not to diminish the view of the Nation’s Capital beyond.

A metallic, stainless steel surface forms the equilateral triangles that form the Memorial spires with the jointing details specifically minimized. Each spire is illuminated by its own light source. At the entrance from the west stands the Honor Guard, symbolizing patriotism and power. From here, the bluestone path moves north to the Glass Contemplation Wall, a glazed independent panel with meditative inscriptions. It symbolizes the presence of all of those who are gone. Halfway on the journey back and forth, one will find the heart of the Memorial – a triangular prow bounded by three spires. Standing within the soaring forms, one can see the Washington Monument. A stepped stone plinth runs parallel with the pathway and can act as seating for special events as well as for the “trooping of the colors.”

The landscaping edges the active site with thick rows of mature trees, welcomed for their shade, lined mostly along the west of the complex and carefully shaped to intensify the Memorial experience.

James Ingo Freed
15 September 2004

For more information on Mr. Freed's work and career, please visit his biography on Pei Cobb Freed & Partners' website.