Afterthoughts: War Stories

Visiting the USS Arizona Memorial’s new visitor center. PLUS: Photo Gallery.

Photo: Linny Morris

For a lot of us, the USS Arizona Memorial is one of those places we visit when showing visitors around the island. Some of us have a deeper attachment if we have relatives who were at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, or who fought in the war. My connection? My father was in the Navy in the Pacific during World War II, though he joined after the war started. More directly, one of my earliest jobs was at the Arizona Memorial visitor center, working with the museum collection and on events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack in 1991.

It was an emotional time, perhaps the last time a significant number of Pearl Harbor survivors would assemble at the site. In the days leading up to the commemoration, the visitor center was practically my second home. That’s my full disclosure before I tell you that I recently visited the new, $58-million USS Arizona Memorial visitor center that opened in December—and hated it.

Not because it replaces a building I knew intimately (live in one place long enough and you will see familiar buildings torn down, replaced, you get used to this). Functionally, the new facility is clearly superior to the old one. Roomier ticket counters, a bigger gift shop, more spacious grounds, more restrooms. Its new museum is fantastic.

The previous visitor center…

Photo: James N. Willi

Subjectively, however, the place just looked—felt—wrong: the colors (Hawaii’s now ubiquitous beige); the shed-roof forms, curved like waves; the panel-on-frame construction that lacks solidity. The architecture screamed retail, with too many textures and colors reminding me of, say, Waikele Premium Outlets.

To be fair, I went back a couple weeks later for a longer visit. This time, it didn’t remind me of a shopping center.

It looked like a really nice elementary school.

I don’t mean that as an insult. It is an educational facility first and foremost*, preparing visitors before they go on to the actual memorial; Alfred Preis’ 1962 masterpiece of mid-century modernism, which appears to float over the wreck of the USS Arizona.

The old visitor center had many flaws—it was too small for the 1 million-plus visitors it received every year, and started sinking as soon as it was finished 30 years ago. It did, however, feel as though it were in a dialogue with the memorial. Made of visually heavy, bare, rough, dark-gray aggregate concrete, the center contrasted with the visually light, white-painted smooth concrete of the memorial. At its heart were two landscaped reflecting pools, open to the sky, yet surrounded by these ominous structures; a metaphor for the imperiled island paradise that was Hawaii in 1941. The visitor center’s darkness and weight intensified the emotional release of Preis’ deliberately serene, bright and hopeful design for the memorial.

… and the new.

Photo: A. Kam Napier

The new facility doesn’t speak to the memorial architecturally, except in one shocking way. On Preis’ memorial, there is a stylized “tree of life” motif cast as perforations into the far end of the structure, flooding sunlight onto the wall bearing the 1,102 names of the Arizona’s dead, still entombed in the wreck.

The new facility reproduces this design in a monolith right on the visitor center grounds, so it’s now one of the first things you see. This is like telling someone the end of a movie they are about to see.

America’s entry in mankind’s biggest conflagration in history began on this spot. To tell that story architecturally we got … beige. The site seems to call for something more.                                                   

* The area has also been renamed the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, embracing the memorials for the USS Utah—also still wrecked in the harbor—and the USS Oklahoma.

Here are additional photos and discussion, including comments from the architect of the new buildings.