Four months ago, a design for a presidential memorial in Washington, D.C., was wending its quiet way through the federal approvals process. Most of Washington didn’t know or care that architect Frank Gehry—he of Bilbao and Disney and Lady Gaga’s hat—was creating the new memorial, which will commemorate President Dwight D. Eisenhower on a four-acre site just off the National Mall.
Now three Congressmen have called for the design to be scrapped, and Gehry’s proposal will be debated at a House hearing tomorrow, Tuesday, March 20. What exactly happened?
In December, rumblings of discontent from Eisenhower’s granddaughters, Susan and Anne, appeared in The Washington Post. Within hours, their brother, David Eisenhower, resigned from the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission, which Congress had established in 1999 to plan a memorial to the late president, and which selected Gehry from among 44 contenders in 2009.
A group called the National Civic Art Society (NCAS) had already declared war on Frank Gehry and his proposal with a counter competition. Billing itself as an educational society “dedicated to the traditional humanistic practice of architecture, urban design and the fine arts,” and headquartered in a conservative lobbyist’s office, NCAS published a 153-page report attacking Gehry’s design as a “travesty” and a “Happy McMonument,” and the architect himself as an egoist and relativist.
The traditional architecture community then mounted an aggressive anti-Gehry PR campaign. Objections to the Gehry design appeared in right-leaning publications like The Daily Caller and The American Spectator and trickled up to mainstream outlets. The Chicago Tribune’s Blair Kamin reported that he was pitched by a PR person in the employ of Richard Driehaus, the philanthropist and staunch architectural traditionalist.
So what exactly is “monstrous,” to use the NCAS’s term, about Gehry’s plans for memorializing Ike? Critics take issue with the memorial’s style, scale, and use of an unconventional material.
Gehry’s design calls for a memorial park framed by monumental-sized columns, which will hoist a giant theatrical backdrop: translucent metal “tapestries” depicting the landscape of Abilene, Kansas, Eisenhower’s childhood home. In the park, chunky bas reliefs will show Ike in his prime as World War II general and president, while a small statute of the president as a boy will survey these future milestones of his life, and America’s.
Two of the common criticisms—about scale and material—merit serious consideration. At four acres, the memorial site is huge (although Frank Gehry is the wrong person to blame for that). The 80-foot-tall columns and screens could make visitors feel like ants. But being visible from a distance, they should also draw curious visitors from the Mall proper, and will help define the park as more than leftover space between major roads and hulking government office buildings.
If the finished tapestries resemble the mockups (that fabricator Zahner says have already been scrapped), Gehry will be giving us something exciting: an urban-scaled palimpsest, a rural Kansan landscape layered over the Department of Education’s Brutalist facade. Is experimentation with materials appropriate for a national memorial? Durability is a concern, as Eisenhower family members have pointed out; but if our government won’t go out on a limb for innovative design, who will?
The primary objection to Gehry’s design is biographical. The design, critics say, tells the wrong story about Ike. It’s too focused on Kansas and his boyhood, and not on his achievements as a great public figure. In truth—and here’s the problem—the story is only half written. The narrative elements of the design are still hazy, and will mostly be handed off to collaborators (Robert Wilson is a consultant on the metal tapestries, and currently Charles Ray is unofficially advising Gehry on the sculptural elements). Artistically, maybe this makes sense, but for the public it leaves a lot unanswered. We can judge Gehry’s frame but not the portrait that goes inside it.
This has resulted, no surprise, in wild speculation and a PR nightmare for the commission. In a belated attempt to tamp down the furor, commissioners released transcripts of meeting minutes in which the Eisenhower grandchildren endorsed Gehry’s design concept as early as 2009. They were for it before they were against it, apparently.
The controversy exposes the drawbacks of a fast-track, closed competition. The Eisenhower Memorial Commission followed the federal government’s mostly laudable Design Excellence Program, which has been instrumental in getting more top-tier architects designing federal buildings by streamlining the selection process. But that program’s pre-qualification of architects based on past work rules out finding young designers who might be the next Maya Lin—one cogent point made by an NCAS report amid its blizzard of otherwise hysterical rhetoric. Expect critics to raise that point again on March 20, when the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands holds its hearing.