Q&A with National Japanese American Memorial Project Manager Thomas Striegel- Part I

Hopefully if you’ve been to the D.C. area, you’ve had the chance to visit the National Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism. It’s a masterful tribute to the Japanese Americans who were unjustly incarcerated during World War II and the Japanese Americans who courageously served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We are not makers of history. We are made by history.” The Memorial plays an invaluable role–not only helping to preserve Japanese American’s place in history, but it’s a reminder of past injustices that shape our commitment to civil rights.

The JACL DC chapter was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to sit down with Thomas Striegel, vice president at Davis Buckley Architects and Planners, as well as the project manager for the design and construction of the National Japanese American Memorial. It was an insightful and educational experience. Below is the first part of our conversation with Thomas.

Thomas Striegel, Clare Striegel, Davis Buckley

Q: What was it about the National Japanese American Memorial that made your firm decide to take it on as a project?

A: From the outset, we were honored to work on the Memorial. The National Park Service recommended our firm, Davis Buckley Architects and Planners (DBA), to the National Japanese American Memorial Foundation (NJAMF). We had recently completed the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, and were well regarded for our work to secure the required design and technical approvals from several jurisdictional agencies. We were initially engaged to work on the site selection, and after that went very smoothly, were then asked to design the Memorial. The importance of what the Memorial would stand for was immediately evident. It was also clear that those we worked with at NJAMF were dedicated to see the Memorial’s construction, which at times can be a challenging process, through to completion.

Q: What was your vision when you first started designing the Memorial?

A: We tried to be very open minded at the outset regarding what the Memorial should be. We did a lot of research about the related events. Davis Buckley, our firm’s founder and president, organized a number of focus groups with Japanese American community members to hear firsthand about their experiences before the war, in the camps or in the military, and after the war. Additionally, our firm wanted to learn what the Memorial would mean to them and what they thought it should be. The feedback was invaluable and helped to shape the design.

Q: The Memorial is intended to recognize the unjust incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, as well as pay tribute to those JA’s who fought for a country that was also interning their families. How did you go about conveying such a difficult and complex topic? 

A: It is a complicated story. The continuous form of the spiraling wall is the Memorial’s uniting element. It first shapes the contained, central space—symbolic of the internment camps. It then leans back, opens, and gets lower to express the contributions that those who fought for the national cause while simultaneously depicting that the camps were both unneeded and unjust. The inscriptions on the various parts of the wall help to tell the story.

Q: What was most challenging during the building of the Memorial? 

A: The site presented a number of technical challenges. The natural elevation of the site was much lower. When the plan for that area of Washington, D.C. was developed, approximately 10’ of fill material was brought in to construct the adjacent avenues. The fill material was not clean structural soil; it came from landfills and contained long buried trash and construction debris, which provided a poor structural base for the Memorial. The soil had to be densified and reinforced using geopiers; evenly distributed columns of highly compacted gravel that extend down to sound natural soils. During excavations for the foundations, areas of intact brick pavers were discovered 10’ below grade. Research concluded that they were the remnants of the sidewalks that surrounded the original train station that existed before the area was filled. There were also a number unmapped, existing utilities discovered that had to be rerouted and a vent from the adjacent underground Metro tunnel that that had to be repositioned and reconstructed.

Q: What emotions were you hoping to evoke as visitors walk through the Memorial? 

A: We hoped that it would result in feelings of deep pride for the Japanese Americans who had persevered through the events of WWII in such a dignified and honorable way, to be honored in this significant way at a prominent site in the Nation’s Capital, with a national monument built of beautiful, durable and well-crafted materials. We also hoped that visitors would learn more about this important story, and leave with a better understanding of how wrong the internment was and how nothing like this can ever be allowed to happen again.