Located a few blocks from the Texas School Book Depository, this simple structure by renowned architect Philip Johnson sits at Market and Commerce Streets, well hidden behind ‘Big Red’, the former Dallas City Hall. I didn’t know of it before our trip to Dallas, but it made sense to seek it out following our visit to the Sixth Floor Museum. Built and dedicated in 1970, the plaques at the entrances state the monument’s intent:
The joy and excitement of John Fitzgerald Kennedy's life belonged to all men.
So did the pain and sorrow of his death.
When he died on November 22, 1963, shock and agony touched human conscience throughout the world. In Dallas, Texas there was a special sorrow.
The young President died in Dallas. The death bullets were fired 200 yards west of this site.
This memorial, designed by Philip Johnson, was erected by the people of Dallas. Thousands of citizens contributed support, money and effort.
It is not a memorial to the pain and sorrow of death, but stands as a permanent tribute to the joy and excitement of one man's life.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy's life.
The sun had come and gone during the morning, appropriately moving from dark gray skies while we stared out the Museum’s windows at the triple overpass and grassy knoll below, to blue skies with bright white clouds when we reached the memorial. It seemed a structure well designed to promote private reflection, yet still unlikely to give its visitors that experience. My daughter and I both were quiet and thoughtful, as we tried to figure out the ethic of the place, but the small number of other visitors who walked in did all their reasoning out loud.
Even without the current construction nearby, it doesn’t seem to be sited in a central, magnetic location. The structure itself is an open concrete cube, with two entrances on opposite sides, enclosing a space 50 feet square. The walls are scored vertically, and the lines do seem to direct your thoughts, and occasionally your vision, higher. A recessed area in the center holds a simple rectangular prism of black granite, inscribed ‘John Fitzgerald Kennedy’ on both sides.
It’s not surprising that the memorial provokes a range of responses, many of those criticizing it as inadequate, ugly, symptomatic of our culture’s shortcomings, or maybe just Dallas’ failings. Witold Rybczynski makes a case for the first in a recent Slate article; less eloquent expressions of the latter are posted as responses to a Dallas native’s blog musings. One of the best responses is a UT-Dallas professor’s charitable interpretation of Johnson’s intentions that still recognizes the installation’s flaws.
It struck me as a noble but failed gesture. Jacqueline Kennedy herself is said to have selected Johnson, a choice hard to argue with. His design does promote solitude and reflection; in an urban environment, however, that seems to be a steep, uphill battle. To what extent are solitude and celebration compatible? If most come here to mourn, can they celebrate? The starkness of installation also seems more suited to encompassing grief and loss, rather than joy. In the end, perhaps it is too much to expect any structure in Dallas to provide space for celebration, where even those sympathetic to the cenotaph’s intentions are here because this is the city of Kennedy’s death.