The Memorial’s glass walls represent “the voices of disabled veterans” – their personal journeys of courage and extraordinary sacrifices made in the service of their country. The review and selection of the final quotations and the development of the imagery and supporting bronze elements for these walls went through an extensive process of refinement and adjustments during the creation of the site.
One essential goal of this effort was to insure that all disabled veterans and those who form their circle of support see themselves reflected in the Memorial. An important additional goal was to provide a place within the Memorial where all Americans could come and begin to understand and connect with the tremendous contributions of the country’s disabled veterans.
Design architect Michael Vergason’s decision to choose glass for the three interpretive walls of the Memorial was an inspired one. “Glass is a material of disclosure and transparency,” Cloud said. “It liberates and illuminates the imagery and veterans’ voices in a way that carving them into stone would not have done.”
The image, text and bronze components are now fully integrated into the three glass walls along the southern edge of the Memorial. The design collaborators – Cloud Gehshan, History Associates and sculptor Larry Kirkland – have created a complex narrative with a universal message that reaches across time, gender, race, rank and branch of service.
The individual glass panels that comprise the three glass walls are made of five layers of clear laminated glass. The selected quotations, or “voices of disabled veterans,” are both etched into the surfaces and encapsulated within the glass layers of the walls. These “voices” represent the full continuum of American military conflict, past and present, and express timeless ideals of patriotism, dedication to service, and the pain and devastation of war.
Four cast bronze sculptural panels with reverse silhouettes stand close behind the glass in carefully selected locations. Large images of veterans and those who care for them emerge or bloom within the translucent glass. These images are asymmetrically paired with the cutout bronze figures. Additional single images are interspersed along the walls.
These montages are brought to life by changing daylight and artificial light in the evening, illuminating and passing through the figurative bronze windows and translucent glass to powerful effect. The glass surfaces of the walls are further animated by the reflections and shadows of visitors and daily passersby.
The threading of voices, layered images and silhouettes, constantly shifting and changing with the light, capture a sense of memory and loss, struggle and strength. The overall effect is a seamless integration of message, image, form and movement that will create a memorable experience for the visitor and serve as a powerful metaphor for the trials and triumphs of America’s disabled American veterans.
From the Revolutionary War to the present day, disabled American veterans have told powerful stories about their experiences. Working together, two firms researched and selected the most appropriate quotations and illustrations to form the emotionally moving interpretive framework for the Memorial.
“Our job was to develop the interpretive approach, help shape the content and determine how best to tell the veterans’ stories in a meaningful way,” said Jerome Cloud, principal in charge of design for Cloud Gehshan Associates in Philadelphia.
Cloud said he and his team were inspired by The Price of Their Blood: Profiles in Spirit, by the late Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jesse Brown, who co-founded the Disabled Veterans’ Life Memorial Foundation, and author Daniel Paisner. By design, the collaborators wanted the content to be more evocative and emotional in tone than factual and narrative, in order to amplify the messages of respect, honor and commemoration conveyed by the landscape and overall architecture of the site.
The first step in the process involved researching disabled veterans’ stories, a process conducted by History Associates of Rockville, MD. Their charge was to identify the range and diversity of experiences of men and women of different ranks, across all service branches and military conflicts. “While there were relatively few quotations from the Revolutionary War, the volume grew steadily from the Civil War to the present day,” Cloud said.
Next, the team created a quotation matrix, similar to a spreadsheet, to categorize about 700 of the most moving stories and ensure a wide diversity of voices. “While every disabled veteran has a unique experience, we felt the best approach was to focus on four common stages of their journeys,” Cloud said.
The team looked for quotes about what inspired these soldiers to serve their country, about the trauma of injury, the challenge of healing, and the discovery of new purpose in veterans’ lives. The final quotations were selected for their universal resonance and timelessness and could represent any war.
Through a multi-stage review process, the original selection of quotations was trimmed to the final group of eighteen. They are etched onto the 48 glass panels alongside photographic images, and four bronze sculptured silhouettes created by Memorial sculptor Larry Kirkland. “We selected the Palatino typeface for the quotations because it strikes the right balance of classic proportion, readability and strength,” Cloud said. “We used the classic and timeless Trajan capital letters for the large quotations etched into the front, forward surface.”
The images and quotations embedded in the glass will be illuminated by the light passing through the bronze cutouts and lit up at night, animating and bringing the glass panels to life, “We wanted to create an interaction and a dialogue between all the elements,” Cloud said. “For example, one of the cutout silhouettes is an image of a soldier with a crutch, who appears to be standing in front of an image of Arlington Cemetery that is actually a projection from behind. The juxtaposition of images is a powerful and moving reminder of loss and sacrifice.”
Cloud’s firm also designed the type treatment for the Memorial name, including the V-cut quotations from George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower to be carved into the granite walls that flank one edge of the site. “We have worked on a number of history, memorial and donor recognition projects,” Cloud said. “Yet there is nothing in our experience that has been as deeply moving and as rewarding as working on this Memorial over these last several years.”