Better Cities & Towns: NCAS Report on the Eisenhower Memorial Is “Devastating”
At Better! Cities & Towns, one of the best publications devoted to urban planning, Philip Langdon penned what is perhaps the most thorough article yet on the flawed design of Frank Gehry’s Eisenhower Memorial:
. . . The most scathing response to the design has been a 153-page report, “The Gehry Towers Over Eisenhower,” issued in January by the National Civic Art Society, an organization that says civic art in the US has “deteriorated to the point of catastrophe.”
The largest component of the memorial, as conceived by the lionized Los Angeles architect, would be 80-foot-high limestone-clad cylinders from which would be hung large woven screens of industrial steel wire—Gehry calls them “tapestries.” The tapestries would depict, in black-and-white photorealistic detail, a winter landscape in Kansas, the state where Eisenhower was born and grew up.
To one side of the memorial would be a sculpture of Eisenhower as a barefoot youth. His hometown, Abilene, already has a barefoot-boy statue of Ike, and his descendants argue that a sculpture in the nation’s capital ought to depict him in adulthood. After all, he was a mature man when he commanded allied forces in Europe during World War II; he was 60 years old when he became commander of NATO in 1950; and he was one of our oldest presidents when he took the oath of office in 1953. . . .
No one with traditional architectural tastes seems happy with the woven metal screens, which hark back, in many people’s minds, to Gehry’s early work with chain-link fencing. The fact that Gehry referred to the cylinders and screens as “theater” for those going past in automobiles further rankles people who want urban settings built to human scale.
Symbolism run amok
Through forms, materials, and organization, a memorial speaks to viewers and visitors. What does Gehry’s memorial say?
Fundamentally, it tells individual members of the public that they are so small as to be insignificant. The cylinders (or columns) are to be 11 to 12 feet in diameter, according to the National Civic Art Society (NCAS), and they’re to be entirely undecorated—lacking bases, capitals, or fluting. The absence of human-scale detail and ornament was one of the major failings of modernism; it contributed to modernism’s frequent coldness. Fine Arts Commissioner Diana Balmori has expressed alarm at the size of the cylinders (or columns), telling Gehry, “You would feel like an ant next to them.”
Justin Shubow, president and chairman of NCAS, wrote in the organization’s report: “The size, shape, material, and arrangement of the pillars brings (sic) to mind hardened ICBM launch tubes, a forever uncompleted highway overpass, or bollards that could prevent a battleship from crashing into the plaza.”
Robert E. Miller of the National Capital Planning Commission said to Gehry, “The way they look to me now they are the biggest, baddest bollards we’ve put up in the city, and it invokes to me the military-industrial complex that [Eisenhower] criticized.” To which Gehry replied, “Yes, maybe.” (This exchange, and many other devastating pieces of information, are presented and extensively footnoted in the NCAS report.)
Shubow predicts that because the columns will lack the entasis (tapering) of classical columns, they will appear to be out of parallel: “Thus the Memorial’s looming towers will necessarily—and intentionally—look crooked to the eye.” Asserts Shubow: “Gehry surely knows this. … This is no small issue when it comes to symbolism and allegory.” (To me, this is one of the weakest charges in the NCAS report. Modernist architects have been erecting untapered columns for decades. When did you last hear anyone, except perhaps a classical architect, complain that they look crooked?)
Questions have been raised about whether the tapestries, which require a vast number of welds, will be difficult to maintain, and will lack the permanence that’s usually hoped for in a memorial. Shubow quotes Fine Arts Commissioner Michael McKinnell (in the 1960s, McKinnell’s firm designed Boston’s architecturally important but widely disliked City Hall) as saying about the permanence of the tapestries:
[I]f I can be facetious, the tapestry, when you and I are long gone, will disintegrate and the columns will be left and it will be like [the Roman ruins of] Paestum and it will be marvelous. So I think that is wonderful. I seriously think that is wonderful.
At some points, the NCAS report reads like a relentless prosecution. The Eisenhower family has been more restrained in its statements, yet nonetheless firm about Gehry’s design being wrong for the capital. “I just don’t think Dwight Eisenhower is remembered because he was a barefoot boy from Kansas,” Susan Eisenhower, a granddaughter, told The Washington Post. “When I look at this memorial, I don’t see any bit of him in it.”
Shubow writes that Gehry’s design looks like a case of the architect trying to cut a great man down to size. The barefoot boy will look awfully puny set amid gigantic columns. I don’t have any special insight into the motivation of Gehry. What strikes me, though, is that he’s an odd choice for the job of memorializing a five-star general and moderately conservative president.
Gehry made his reputation as an iconoclast—someone willing to ignore or undercut prevailing sentiment. His early experiments with chain link weren’t exactly welcomed by everyone. Ada Louise Huxtable, former architecture critic at The New York Times, once wrote that Gehry’s “art mocks earnestness as life mocks art.”
But why mock earnestness in the symbolic center of the nation, and in connection with a general and president whose earnestness upheld civic virtue? It was General Eisenhower who ordered that the horrors of Nazi concentration camps be documented to prevent their recurring, and it was President Eisenhower who sent troops to Little Rock to enforce the Supreme Court’s decision on de jure segregation of public schools.
There’s a strange phenomenon within architecture: A designer makes his mark as the brash outsider, the upsetter of the apple cart, and eventually, by dint of talent and originality, is elevated into a quasi-establishment figure. Gehry has made that long journey from outlier to revered figure, which helps explain why he was chosen—though his selection took place in an invitation-only competition that received only 44 entries, a fraction of the number of entries in the wide-open competition for the great Vietnam War memorial three decades ago. (Had the Eisenhower competition been open to all, perhaps it would have discovered the new generation’s Maya Lin.)
It’s hard for architectural juries to avoid choosing a figure as eminent and as talked about as Gehry. He has done stand-out design at Bilbao and in some other commissions. But he is not the man for every occasion—and certainly not for Eisenhower.
Frank Gehry was precisely the wrong architect for the job. His self-stated philosophy of design and his avant-garde prior works—which glorify chaos, danger, and pandemonium—are antithetical to everything that Eisenhower stood for. They are also antithetical to the orderly, harmonious style of the Monumental Core and the nation‘s capital, not to mention the order and balance of the American form of government.
As The Washington Post put it, the Eisenhower descendants “would prefer a simpler, more traditional design, one that depicts their grandfather’s accomplishments.”
On Jan. 9 the family released a letter saying:
We have been told by a number of professionals that this memorial has been ‘fast-tracked’ to meet some arbitrary deadline. We believe it is inappropriate given the controversy that surrounds the design and its concept It is far more important to adopt a memorial design that has the support of the Eisenhower family, Congress and the American people than it is to rush forward with a design and concept that are flawed.
Shubow says the memorial could come up for consideration and approval by the National Capital Planning Commission at its April 5 meeting.
We will soon find out whether a leader who served honorably in the nation’s toughest assignments will be promised a memorial that fits him.