National Journal: Eisenhower Memorial Still in Dispute

Christopher Snow Hopkins reports for National Journal:

CULTURE OF WASHINGTON

Eisenhower Memorial Still in Dispute

by Christopher Snow Hopkins

Updated: May 30, 2012 | 6:59 p.m.
May 30, 2012 | 6:13 p.m.

Citing “the scope and scale of the metal scrims” central to architect Frank Gehry’s design for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial, the Eisenhower family announced on Wednesday that they still do not support the plan despite recent revisions.

In a statement posted online, the family reiterated their objection to Gehry’s colossal metal “tapestries,” which would enclose the memorial on three sides and depict the prairie landscape of Abilene, Kan.—President Eisenhower’s hometown.

“Not only are they the most expensive element of the Gehry design,” they wrote, “they are also the most vulnerable to urban conditions, as well as wildlife incursions and ongoing, yet unpredictable, life-cycle costs.

“This one-of-a-kind experimental technology, which serves as the memorial’s ‘backdrop,’ is impractical and unnecessary for the conceptual narrative. For those reasons, we do not support a design that utilizes them.”

The statement comes two weeks after a meeting of the congressionally chartered Eisenhower Memorial Commission where representatives of Gehry’s design firm unveiled revisions to his design.

In place of two stone bas reliefs that flanked a life-sized sculpture of a teenaged Eisenhower. Gehry introduced free-standing, heroic-scale sculptures to commemorate Eisenhower’s presidency and military service.

But Gehry’s revisions preserved the design’s most controversial elements: the life-sized sculpture—inspired by a speech in which Eisenhower refers to himself as a “barefoot boy”—and the tapestries themselves. Testifying before a House Natural Resources subcommittee on March 20, Susan Eisenhower, the late president’s granddaughter, compared the multistory scrims to billboards, outsized depictions of Chairman Mao, and even chain-link fences at the Auschwitz concentration camp.

For its part, the Eisenhower Memorial Commission interpreted the family’s statement on Wednesday as a vindication of Gehry’s revisions. “We are delighted that the family is thrilled with the new design,” said spokesperson Chris Cimko. “The remaining concerns, viability and sustainability, are being addressed this very moment by a fairly rigorous testing program; that program has a goal of seeing the tapestries remain viable for 100 years or more.”

The commission plans to take a final vote on the memorial’s design later this year.

Even if the family were to endorse the design, it remains to be seen whether the commission can win the support of critics, including some connected with right-leaning institutions such as the Heritage Foundation and the Hudson Institute, who have consistently lambasted the design.

At an American Enterprise Institute-sponsored event earlier this month, Michael J. Lewis, a professor at Williams College, decried the design’s lack of cohesion.

“A monument can only say one thing; for example, ‘we honor,’ or ‘we remember,’ or ‘we endured,’ or ‘we won,’ or simply, ‘we grieve.’ It is this concentrated singleness of expression that makes something monumental. The instant it tries to say many things, it is no longer a monument, but a Russian novel.”

The Eisenhower Memorial, commissioned in 1999, is to be built on a four-acre site across from the National Air and Space Museum, on Independence Avenue between Fourth and Sixth Streets Southwest.

The estimated cost is $112.5 million, and the commission has requested that 80 percent come from federal funding. The goal is to complete construction by 2015.

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