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07.11.2011
New or Déjà Vu
Opposition to Gehry's Eisenhower Memorial spawns competition for something classical.
Second place entry by Sylvester Bartos and Whitley Esteban.
Courtesy National Civic Art Society

While the planning for President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s memorial in Washington, D.C. began in the last century, the Eisenhower Memorial Commission (EMC) is seeking a distinctly 21st-century space for the 34th president. But the contemporary approach is drawing the ire of groups pushing for a more traditional design. In 2009 following a national competition, Frank Gehry was selected to design the four-acre plaza, Eisenhower Square, south of the National Mall between the National Air and Space Museum and the Lyndon B. Johnson Department of Education Building.

Gehry’s design, markedly absent his vocabulary of twisting forms, calls for a colonnade of unadorned limestone pillars supporting 80-foot tall woven stainless steel screens depicting scenes from Eisenhower’s life. A continuous mesh band is set 90 feet from the Education Building, and two 100-foot-wide screens frame the opposite corners.

While a diagonal section of Maryland Avenue will be eliminated to create the space, a wide promenade on axis with the capitol traverses Gehry’s park-like memorial, which is planted with oak trees, filled with stone blocks and benches carrying inscriptions, and includes a service building.

Frank Gehry's memorial design.
 

The the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts must issue approval for the design, which could be submitted for preliminary approval as soon as this Fall.

Daniel J. Feil, executive architect at the EMC, told the Washington Post, “If people are expecting that this will be Bilbao or Walt Disney redux, they'll be surprised.”

“He certainly is looking to do something creative,” said Shane Dettman, a senior planner at the NCPC. “The metal tapestries are a very innovative approach. There’s nothing like them in the district.”

But it is the memorial’s metal screens that have drawn the most fire from skeptics who deride their scale and liken them to billboards. In response, the National Civic Art Society (NCAS) and the mid-Atlantic chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art launched a counter-proposal competition, seeking a more classically inspired alternative, and about 40 responded. The NCAS put it bluntly: “Gehry's proposed basketball court-sized metal mesh screens…would be an uncivil, brutal insult to the classical city envisioned by Pierre L'Enfant.”

   
Daniel Cook's design won first place in the competition (left) and the Michael Franck and Rodney Cook won a  Committee Commendation (right).
 

Winners of the competition announced on June 6 submitted an array of traditional schemes. The president’s granddaughter, Susan Eisenhower, is among those skeptical of a contemporary design. “The challenge for whatever memorial gets put on this spot is how to make this man timeless,” she said at the awards ceremony. “I am not at all surprised that this group has decided to step up to the plate and start a debate…I think it's not only perfectly natural, it is absolutely appropriate.”

Both top awards went to University of Notre-Dame architecture graduates. Daniel Cook’s winning design calls for a triumphal arch carved with Eisenhower’s image as general and president flanked by a pair of statuary-topped columns set in fountains. The second-place design by Sylvester Bartos and Whitley Esteban placed an arch on axis with the Capitol Building framed by a half-round colonnade.

“Counter competition results will not be part of the final review or analysis,” said Dettman, but the review process does provide for public testimony. The memorial is scheduled to be completed in 2015 at a cost that could top $100 million, but the battle to redefine memorial design could continue for some time more.

Branden Klayko