American Spectator: “Design for the Eisenhower Memorial … an Insult to All Concerned”
A Monstrosity, Not a Monument
Frank Gehry’s design for the Eisenhower Memorial in Washington is an insult to all concerned.
By Tom Bethell
. . . The architect chosen to design the memorial is Frank Gehry and you surely have heard of him. He’s the one whose undulating metallic structures draw attention to themselves. Germaine Greer called them “scrunched-up brown bags.”How was Gehry chosen to memorialize Eisenhower? I have been trying to find out, without much success. Oh, there was a “competition”– but it was a choice “strictly confined to modernists,” I was told by someone in the know. Perhaps it was rigged. Apparently an influential figure in the choice of Gehry was Rocco Siciliano, a businessman from Beverly Hills who is also chairman of the Commission. A big fundraiser for Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and a person who sits on the L.A. Philharmonic board with Gehry, Siciliano was an assistant secretary of labor in the first Eisenhower administration. Gehry also brought along avant-garde theater director Robert Wilson, who would help Gehry put Eisenhower in his proper place.
“It made me very tearful to realize that this great man was not recognized,” Gehry said last year. But don’t trust those crocodile tears. He’s interested in aesthetic issues only to disparage them. “I’m confused as to what’s ugly and what’s pretty,” the Los Angeles Times quoted him as saying in a particular moment of clarity.
The current design for the Eisenhower Memorial is a monstrosity. Two views are published here. One shows 60-foot concrete posts, symbolizing precisely nothing, arrayed in front of the Department of Education building. The other shows the “memorial” in its full 540-foot width, with a chain-link fence (called a “tapestry”) suspended from those monster posts. The Department of Education is almost entirely concealed behind it. Cars in the foreground (on Independence Avenue) show the massive scale.
The chain-link “tapestry” depicts what seem to be dead trees in Abilene, Kansas. “These chain-link trees do not have leaves, and depict a permanent winter,” said Eric Wind, secretary of the National Civic Art Society. That society, which earlier this year held an Eisenhower Memorial counterproposal competition, stated:
Gehry’s proposed basketball-court sized metal mesh screens hung between massive concrete posts over 60 feet tall would be an uncivil, brutal insult to the classical city envisioned by Pierre L’Enfant and our nation’s founders.
That could be music to the ears of Frank Gehry, however. Kennicott, the Washington Post‘s culture critic, has put his finger on what Gehry really wants: “To break with centuries of tradition in the aesthetics of memorialization.” But when a tradition lasts for centuries, maybe there’s a reason for it. Wanting to break with it is the familiar goal of revolutionaries masquerading as artists. . . .
Kennicott wasn’t entirely wrong when he called Gehry the world’s most famous architect. But famous is an inch away from infamous, and that’s what could lie ahead for Gehry.
CONSIDER WASHINGTON’S best-known monuments. The Lincoln Memorial (1912–22) tells visitors: “Here is a man who was a great president!” You are expected to admire him. You probably don’t know who designed the memorial, but that’s because the architect, Henry Bacon, wasn’t trying to draw attention to himself. At a public talk at the National Archives in October, Gehry was nonetheless condescending about the Lincoln Memorial. It’s “in the form of a Greek temple,” he said. “What’s that got to do with Lincoln?” Maybe they should have built him a log cabin.
The Jefferson Memorial was also built as a classical temple. (Architect: John Russell Pope. Construction: 1939–43.) By then modernists were already sensing that our cultural borders were undefended and that aesthetic standards could be subverted and then reenlisted in a war against bourgeois taste. So the Jefferson Memorial was criticized as retrograde even as it was being built. Dressing up 20th-century buildings in “styles that are safely dead,” Gehry’s forerunners complained, was a “tired architectural lie.” But the people liked what they saw, FDR was solidly behind it, and the memorial was not changed. It is popular today.
The Eisenhower Memorial, like all of Gehry’s work, seems designed to draw attention to Gehry himself. But its very idiosyncrasy suggests that it won’t wear well. What may seem fascinatingly “different” today soon becomes merely tiresome.
Gehry’s “twisted surfaces and exploded topology lessons,” as Justin Shubow, chairman of the National Civic Art Society, calls them, do express Gehry’s philosophy, which, he has said, is that “life is chaotic, dangerous and surprising. Building should express that.” But why, exactly, should buildings seem chaotic? Gehry’s seem repetitive and, in the end, merely daft. His Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas “appears to have been designed by an Alzheimer’s patient,” said Shubow. . . .
MILTON GRENFELL, the National Civic Art Society’s vice chairman, told me that architecture students “have to be taught to love ugliness. They’re indoctrinated into this alternative universe.” . . . I’m hoping that David Brussat of the Providence Journal is right when he said that the public has grown tired of being “the lab rats for modern architecture’s addiction to experimentation.” It’s high time.
In his books The Painted Word (1975) and From Bauhaus to Our House (1981), Tom Wolfe turned the postwar fashion of abstract expressionism and architecture into high comedy. Frank Gehry’s proposed Eisenhower Memorial represents a far greater cultural decline than abstract painting ever did. The absurdities of Pollock and de Kooning can be ignored, and today they are. You don’t have to have them on your walls, or look at them in museums. If collectors view them as an investment game, that’s their business. Gehry’s monumental invasions are a different matter. He is in your face and intentionally so. And his proposed memorial comes not just at the public’s expense but also at President Eisenhower’s.