How many Americans know that the Eisenhower Memorial will be the largest presidential memorial in Washington, D.C.? Or that it will be using untested, experimental elements for the first time? Or that it will cost nearly as much to build as the neighboring memorials to Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson combined? These basic facts are still not widely known because the current design has emerged from a planning process that limited rather than encouraged public participation. It has also led directly to a controversy that has stalled the project in regulatory and political limbo and left its supporters and critics without common ground. We need public input to find the consensus that this and every memorial needs.
At least one federal agency is already working toward that outcome. Recently the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), which reviews all major physical changes to the District of Columbia, called for more public feedback before it will decide whether to approve the current design. In September, it refused to hear the Eisenhower Memorial Commission’s (unannounced) request for preliminary design approval and published its application online. This was the first full public disclosure regarding the Eisenhower Memorial, and it reveals practical as well as principled reasons for the NCPC’s delay. These include unresolved technical questions about the design’s main feature, a set of suspended steel “tapestries” eight stories tall, and a record of official doubts about their size and placement. The Commission of Fine Arts has even suggested eliminating them altogether. The current design is neither as feasible nor as popular as the Eisenhower Memorial Commission has represented it to be.
It won’t be cheap, either. The cost of the Eisenhower Memorial is $142 million, a huge increase over its original budget of $55 to $75 million, which was comparable to those of previous presidential memorials. The skyrocketing cost follows a familiar pattern with architect Frank Gehry, the memorial’s designer. The final cost of many of his buildings exceeds their original budgets, sometimes several times over. Typically, asthese buildings are private, wealthy donors and institutions pick up the additional cost. But the Eisenhower Memorial is public, which means we, the taxpayers,will be paying for it. Do we realize we are being asked to commit an open-ended budget to an experimental design?
Public debate has been forestalled as well as squelched. The Eisenhower Memorial Commission rejected established practice to choose its architect through a process that excluded public participation. It considered only registered architects to design the memorial, whom it alerted on one government website. The Commission evaluated these architects on the basis of their reputations and experience, criteria that whittled away all but established contenders. The drawbacks of this closed process, moreover, are well known. The only other time it was tried, for the World War II Memorial, it had to be abandoned after a public outcry over its exclusive and undemocratic character. The Eisenhower Memorial Commission’s decision to revive this discredited process was so unusual that it is the subject of a Congressional investigation by House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa.
A public memorial conceived in this closed and secretive fashion is unlikely to become a unifying national symbol. We should return to the established democratic tradition rejected by the Eisenhower Memorial Commission. Our national memorials are typically designed through open public competitions, which consider anonymous designs from anyone who wants to submit one. This process echoes and reinforces our democratic political process, which helps explain why we keep using it, from the White House and the U.S. Capitol to four of the last five memorials built on the National Mall and all three of the national September 11th memorials.
The current impasse over this memorial shows what happens in a democratic culture of competing ideas when consensus is hoped for at the end rather than planned for from the beginning. No one debates, however, that such consensus is necessary, and we should find paths to it wherever we can. The NCPC has now provided one. The public has the opportunity and the responsibility to make its opinion known.
Sam Roche is a writer and a lecturer at the University of Miami School of Architecture. He is the spokesman for Right by Ike: Project for a New Eisenhower Memorial.