The Pentagon – Steve Vogel
The Pentagon is not generally considered a significant work of architecture, but perhaps it should be. In a period when every new art museum and luxury condo tower is touted as “iconic,” the Pentagon is the real thing: a globally recognized symbol. This concrete behemoth — the largest office building in the world — is also the product of considerable human ingenuity and resourcefulness, as Steve Vogel amply demonstrates in his interesting account. The Library of Congress categorizes “The Pentagon” as history and architecture, but it is really biography — the biography of a building.
The decision to build the Pentagon was made in 1941. The country was not yet at war, but with a huge mobilization under way, which would increase the size of the Army from 174,000 to 1.4 million, it was felt that the entire War Department — up to 40,000 workers — should be housed in one building. Since there was no site large enough for such a massive structure in Washington, the Army chose a prominent location in Virginia, at the foot of the Arlington Memorial Bridge, directly across the Potomac River from the Lincoln Memorial.
After a confrontation with Congress and the Commission of Fine Arts, which was dead set against the site, President Franklin Roosevelt intervened and the building was moved to a less prominent location, about three-quarters of a mile south, in what was then called Hell’s Bottom. Two important vestiges of the original site remained, however: the unusual five-sided plan (conceived over a weekend), which was a result of the shape of the plot of land; and the low height of the building, which had been set, Vogel says, “to keep the building in harmony with the low Washington skyline.”
Construction was overseen by the head of the Army’s construction division, a Corps of Engineers officer named Brehon Burke Somervell who, in Vogel’s story, is the driving force behind this remarkable undertaking. A World War I Distinguished Service Cross winner and a can-do individual, Somervell ended the war a four-star general in charge of all Army supply, and might have been chief of staff had he not had a previous run-in with President Truman. Somervell is not as well-known as Marshall or Eisenhower, although logistics proved as crucial to winning the war as strategy and tactics.
The famous motto of Somervell’s supply department was “We Do the Impossible Immediately. The Miraculous Takes a Little Longer.” And building the Pentagon was a kind of miracle. As large as two Empire State Buildings, the huge structure consumed almost half a million cubic yards of concrete — sand and gravel were dredged from the Potomac. According to Vogel, construction proceeded so quickly that certain portions of the building were completed without the benefit of architects’ or engineers’ drawings.
The author, a military reporter for The Washington Post, writes knowledgeably about the Army culture that is a crucial ingredient of this story. Politics is inevitably a big part of any federal building project, and Vogel is also very good at steering the reader through the thickets of Washington’s wartime bureaucracy. Some of the key players included Frederic A. Delano, chairman of the influential National Capital Park and Planning Commission, and Roosevelt’s uncle; and Roosevelt himself, the most architecturally inclined president since Thomas Jefferson.
Vogel emphasizes the human factor — a critical ingredient in any building construction project. Col. Leslie R. Groves, who would later direct the Manhattan Project, was Somervell’s pugnacious assistant. The architect was G. Edwin Bergstrom, a leading practitioner in Los Angeles who gave the building its severe, stripped-classical appearance. The chief contractor was John McShain, a Philadelphian who was also responsible for constructing the Jefferson Memorial and National Airport.
Thanks to these men, and several thousand workers, the Pentagon was completed in only 17 months (slightly longer than Somervell intended, although part of the building was occupied less than a year after construction began, just as he promised). Vogel does not end his book there. He describes the Pentagon’s subsequent life, in particular two dramatic incidents: the anti-Vietnam War peace march of 1967 and the 9/11 attack. This is not, of course, the first account of the attack, but with its Clancyesque action and firsthand detail (Vogel seems to have interviewed everyone involved) it is surely the most vivid. Of the subsequent reconstruction, which was completed in a mere 12 months, Vogel writes: “The damaged building had been restored in a manner that echoed its creation.”
It is easy to forget that the Pentagon was originally intended to be a temporary military headquarters. Roosevelt, for one, hoped that it could serve as a national archive after the war. “The War Department will doubtless object to giving up the Pentagon building,” he wrote in a memo, “but it is much too large for them, if we get a decent peace.” Instead of a decent peace we got an extended cold war, and the building proved not too large but too small. In any case, by then the (renamed) Defense Department had grown attached to its five-sided home.
Witold Rybczynski teaches architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and serves on the United States Commission of Fine Arts. His new book is “Last Harvest: How a Cornfield Became New Daleville.”
The New York Times – 10 juni 2007