National Civic Art Society Testifies in Congress in Favor of a New Eisenhower Memorial Competition

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On Tuesday March 19th, National Civic Art Society President Justin Shubow testified before the House Subcommittee on Public Lands on a proposed bill for a new competition for the National Memorial to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, now estimated to cost $142 million. The proposed bill would scrap Frank Gehry’s unpopular design.

Supporting the bill, the National Civic Art Society advocated for going back to the drawing board via a new, open, democratic, and fair competition. By contrast, the so-called “competition” that selected celebrity architect Frank Gehry was a secretive, elitist, and exclusionary competition that garnered a mere 44 entries, which is hundreds fewer the number of entries in previous competitions for national memorials.

Only licensed architects with substantial portfolios could have entered the competition, Shubow said, “Yet one does not need to be an experienced architect to come up with a brilliant memorial. One can be a student, a sculptor, an amateur. When Maya Lin won the open, anonymous competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, she was an unknown college student. A present-day Maya Lin could not even have entered the Eisenhower competition.”

The Eisenhower Memorial Commission’s first and foremost error, Shubow explained, “was the decision to use the General Service Administration’s Design Excellence Program for the Memorial competition. This was a fundamental mistake since that program was created to select architects for federal office buildings and courthouses, not memorials. In fact, the very creator of Design Excellence, former GSA chief architect Edward Feiner, strongly urged the Eisenhower Commission not to use the program for the Memorial.” (Documentation of Mr. Feiner’s comment can be found in the PDF here.) This decision constituted “an utter reversal of our tradition of public competitions for national memorials.”

Shubow also quoted Paul Spreiregen as another distinguished opponent of the competition. A distinguished adviser for design competitions in Washington, D.C., including that for the Vietnam Veteran Memorial, Spreiregen wrote in the Washington Post, “Why weren’t all American designers given the opportunity to submit proposals for the Eisenhower memorial? . . . The design process for the Eisenhower memorial should have been open to all. It still can be, if the Gehry design is rejected.”

In addition, Shubow noted that the guidelines of the American Institute of Architects would strongly encourage that a competition for a project of national importance have been an open, blindly reviewed process in which entries are publicly displayed. The actual competition violated all of these guidelines.

Looking ahead to a new competition that will provide President Eisenhower the Memorial he deserves, Shubow outlined what the National Civic Art Society supports as the essential features of a monument:

Monuments are civic art that cause us to solemnly reflect on who we are and what we value. They are heroic-sized, timeless, and possess grandeur. They present an ideal we aspire to rather than warts-and-all reality. . . . They must honor, not merely remember their subjects. They must be made of noble materials—such as marble and bronze—that have proven their durability over millennia, not industrial materials such as steel and PVC piping. Monuments are permanent and must appear permanent, unlike a scrim or a shroud. Monuments ought to be clear and unequivocal in their meaning: They should evince a few simple ideas in a way that is graspable by ordinary Americans. They must be legible without a guide or key, and certainly without a visitor center or iPad. . . . They are not inkblots that leave things to the interpretation of the visitor. Monuments are statements, not question marks.

Subcommittee member Rep. Tom McClintock (CA-4) quoted back these principles in full. He commented, “That is the most beautiful description of what we ought to be focused on that I’ve seen. In whatever future legislation we adopt, this ought to be the preamble of it. I want to commend you on the most clear-headed statement I’ve seen on the subject.”

One Response to “National Civic Art Society Testifies in Congress in Favor of a New Eisenhower Memorial Competition”
  1. kem hinton says:

    Is the original design officially toast?

    If so, what is the status for starting a new competition “process”? Will it be an open single-stage competition, not unlike the one for Vietnam Memorial or similar arrangement?

    Thank you. I can only imagine how very difficult this has been for the organizers, for the most-talented Mr. Gehry, and for the Eisenhower family, all possessing extremely noble intentions.

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