National Civic Art Society Reponds to AIA’s Letter to House Subcommittee Regarding the Eisenhower Memorial
Robert Ivy, CEO of the American Institute of Architects, submitted a letter to the U.S. House Subcommittee on Public Lands asserting that the trade organization opposes the bill proposed by Rep. Rob Bishop to scrap Frank Gehry’s design for the Eisenhower Memorial. The letter states that AIA neither opposes nor supports the design, but rather says that the process that chose it should not be overturned. (See the AIA’s follow up statement here.) Note, however, that as the AP reports, Mr. Ivy was one of the members of the evaluation board that selected Frank Gehry as the designer.
The AIA is essentially arguing that a client ought not be able to decide whether it is to build a design it has contracted for. In this case, the client is the U.S. Congress, which created the congressional Eisenhower Commission to build a memorial. Ultimately, of course, the client is the American people.
According to National Civic Art Society president Justin Shubow, “This is what democracy looks like. A representative of the people is doing something about a clear lack of consensus over this project. It is not ‘arbitrary’ — to use Mr. Ivy’s word — for Congress to end a project whose cost has ballooned to $142 million and whose durability is being questioned by the government’s materials experts. It is not ‘arbitrary’ to cancel the results of an undemocratic, closed, and secretive competition of designers, not designs. Such a cancellation is precisely what happened after the there was an outcry over the first, closed National WWII Memorial competition.” (See the General Service Administration’s 1996 press release “Changes To WWII Memorial Design Will Ensure Open and Fair Competition.”)
How ironic is it, then, that the guidelines in AIA’s own Handbook of Architectural Design Competitions would strongly encourage the competition for a project of national importance to be an open, blindly reviewed process in which entries are publicly displayed. The actual competition violated all of these guidelines. To quote the handbook (PDF available here):
Open competitions are appropriate under the following circumstances:
• The nature of the project suggests that all architects have an equal opportunity to be selected on the basis of design merit
• The project requires the widest exploration of potential solutions made possible by an open competition
Exhibitions [of entries] provide a fine opportunity to stimulate public consideration of architectural design. They also help to stimulate the competitive spirit of participants. Knowing that their work will be displayed along with that of their peers can be a stimulus to competitors. For all these reasons, as full a presentation as possible of the submissions should be attempted. [my emphasis]
Note that the AIA handbook was made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and thus the guidelines have even wider scope than the interests of the trade association.
The AIA used to be a leading advocate for public competitions for public projects of national importance. We hope to see them continue that leadership today.