National Review: Monstrosity by the Mall

National Review published a learned and insightful article by architecture critic Catesby Leigh:

Monstrosity by the Mall

June 21, 2012 12:00 A.M.
By Catesby Leigh

Back in 2004, the National Gallery of Art hosted a scholarly symposium to explore the wonders of its East Building, which earlier that year the American Institute of Architects had honored with a Twenty-Five-Year Award, for being a building that had stood the test of time. Or had it?

The schematically non-orthogonal geometries of I. M. Pei’s East Building are decidedly unpopular by comparison with the harmonious form and detail of John Russell Pope’s West Building, completed in 1941. More to the point, by the time the gallery published the proceedings of the academic powwow in a lavishly illustrated volume, the East Building was experiencing a major structural failure. The marble cladding system Pei designed — the illustrious architect had once proclaimed it “a technological breakthrough for the construction of masonry walls” — was buckling, with two-by-five-foot marble panels tilting out as their anchors came unstuck from the building’s load-bearing concrete frame. Now all 16,200 marble panels are being reinstalled, at a cost of $85 million.

Who’s footing the bill? You are, dear reader, in your cherished capacity as a U.S. taxpayer.

Predictably, devotees of cutting-edge architecture have preferred to ignore the lessons of Pei’s failure. Some are now singing the praises of Frank Gehry’s even more unpopular design for an oversized, unfocused, and very expensive memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower, to be erected a stone’s throw from Washington’s Mall. But the Gehry scheme, and the competition process by which he won the commission, are being questioned by a handful of congressmen, including Darrell E. Issa (R., Calif.), the powerful chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. One of Ike’s granddaughters, Susan Eisenhower, meanwhile has emerged as the public face of opposition to the design.

The “technological breakthrough” in Gehry’s memorial design consists of gargantuan, billboard-like metallic scrims, most likely to be fabricated in a translucent pattern showing photograph-based representations of the rural Kansas landscape of Ike’s childhood. Elevated 20 feet above ground level, these scrims will hang from towering cylindrical shafts, 80 feet tall and 11 feet in diameter. The ten shafts will be clad in limestone. At least 80 percent of the four-acre memorial’s extravagant $142 million price tag will be covered by taxpayers. And so, of course, will the cost of the scrims’ maintenance or repair, the need for which will arise from guano smudges and windblown trash and dirt or, quite possibly, more serious problems involving structural deterioration.

Not that you should worry about that. Gehry is rigorously testing his scrims’ metallic fabric, whose vertical warp of widely spaced stainless-steel wires is welded to a textured weft of stainless-steel cables — just as Pei tested a mock-up of his brave new wall system. Forget about the Stata Center, the “$300 million fixer-upper,” as a Boston Globe columnist dubbed Gehry’s quirky, leaky computer-science building at MIT, where multiple mishaps led to a lawsuit against the starchitect that was settled out of court. Forget about the piles of snow and ice rolling off Gehry’s business-school building at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, or the hundreds of reflective cladding panels that had to be sanded down at his Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles to relieve the acute thermal discomfort of people living nearby.

Trust him.

As long as he’s not being paid with your tax dollars, that is. Frank Gehry is, after all, an experimental architect. His histrionic, quasi-sculptural deconstructivism represents a viral reaction against the postwar epidemic of functionalist boxes littering city and suburb alike, not only in the United States but the world over.

It so happens that this epidemic of visual sterility manifested itself most conspicuously, so far as our nation’s capital is concerned, in the vicinity of Gehry’s proposed Ike memorial. We’re talking about a veritable wasteland — ugly federal office buildings, a tangle of freeways, railway tracks running along the rights-of-way of what should be Maryland and Virginia Avenues — in Washington’s southwest quadrant, a forlorn district that is mainly the creation of misguided midcentury redevelopment under the banner of “urban renewal.” The wasteland extends right up to the south side of Independence Avenue, which is lined with bureaucrat-container-boxes for the Departments of Education, Transportation, Energy, and Health and Human Services, along with the Voice of America’s moderne Wilbur J. Cohen Building — a somewhat less depressingly simplistic structure.

Before Gehry’s involvement with the project, the congressionally chartered Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission (EMC) decided to consolidate the drab forecourt and rather messy streetscape in front of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Department of Education Building into a bloated, urban-renewal-scale memorial site. Bad idea.

The site lies between the Johnson Building to its south and Independence Avenue. A portion of Maryland Avenue that currently merges with Independence in front of the Johnson Building will be eliminated. The longest of Gehry’s stainless-steel “tapestries” will filter rather than block views of the relentlessly dull, rectilinear Johnson Building, whose front spans two full blocks across the avenue from the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. The two shorter metal scrims, set perpendicular to the Johnson Building, will define the Eisenhower Memorial precinct. The Maryland Avenue right-of-way, which is situated on a diagonal axis with the Capitol building, will be planted with grass. Trees will frame northeasterly views of the Capitol.

A memorial to a great American military commander and statesman such as Ike should be monumental. It should be imposing in its structural and anthropomorphic character, whether it be a sculptural or an architectural creation, or both. A good statue or relief sculpture would convey a sense of the anatomical structure beneath the figure’s clothing instead of settling for a photographic likeness. Whether abstract or figurative, a monument to Ike should have a powerful, magnetic presence. Its effect should be direct, inspirational, and immune to factoidal trivialization masquerading as historical “interpretation.”

Gehry, now 83, hasn’t designed a monument. He has designed a stage set decked out with sculptural and landscape elements and a bevy of inscriptions. Against the quasi-photographic backdrop of leafless sycamore trees and farm buildings provided by the scrims, the current design concept includes a statue of Ike as a military cadet — substituted for a statue of Ike as a barefoot farmboy, to mollify the Eisenhower family and other critics — looking out into the memorial space, with its photo-derived sculpture groups of Ike exhorting troops on D-day and, after his two-term presidency, examining a globe. The statuary will be situated amid lithic piles that might or might not be intended to evoke ruins.

Gehry’s entire design, in other words, is diffuse, scenographic, and pictorial as opposed to focused, symbolic, and monumental. The architect in fact collaborated with theater artist Robert Wilson on “creating a scene,” as Wilson put it, that would encapsulate the essential Ike. The Kansas-landscape scrims and the farmboy statue resulted from that collaboration, and it is clear they represent the heart and soul of Gehry’s deeply inadequate vision of the memorial. On the other hand, it is the EMC’s fault, not Gehry’s, that the memorial program includes a Web-based “electronic companion memorial” involving a downloadable mobile-device application — an infotainment feature intended to “engage and enthrall” visitors by allowing them “to view historical footage, speeches, and events in the context of the physical memorial through augmented reality.” It’s as if the EMC anticipated that the dispiriting “reality” of its new-paradigm, ever-so-21st-century presidential memorial would require high-tech “augmentation.”

Gehry, then, has fallen into the obvious trap of designing not a memorial in a park but a bling-laden memorial theme park. To be sure, the site was chosen partly on thematic grounds. The bureaucratic or museological occupants of the adjacent container-boxes were deemed significant because Ike created the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, the Interstate Highway System, and the Federal Aviation Administration while nurturing the nation’s space program and the Voice of America. But the mere fact that a site can be themed to Ike’s political career doesn’t mean it’s the best place for this memorial. And plopping down a memorial park the size of four football fields next door to the Mall — itself an enormous green space extending from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial and connected to a spacious riverfront park system — is an exercise in overkill.

That reality leaves two alternatives: A different site should have been chosen, or intelligent redevelopment of the selected site should have been part of the memorial program. In the latter case, a simple Ike memorial would have been the focus of a small public square or piazza whose intimate scale would have provided a welcome contrast to the titanic expanse of the Mall and the low-grade urban fabric south of Independence Avenue. That small square would have been spatially defined by new mixed-use buildings that would have introduced much-needed ground-level retail — shops, an outdoor café, restaurants — into the Mall’s immediate vicinity. The commemorative and commercial components of such redevelopment at the site would have played mutually reinforcing roles in attracting people.

This approach to the selected site is refreshingly evident in one of the designs submitted in the Ike-memorial counter-competition sponsored last year by the National Civic Art Society and the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art. (I am a co-founder of the NCAS and retired from its board of directors in 2008.) The architect, Francisco Ruiz, came up with an overly complicated sculptural and architectural program for the memorial, including a freestanding classical column and a pair of temple-pavilions connected by an arcade. But he grasped the essence of the site problem: the need for new space-shaping buildings, including mixed-use structures, which he situated along the Maryland Avenue axis. Ruiz’s urbanistic concept, incompatible with the EMC’s neo-urban-renewal memorial program, could easily be reconciled with a simpler monumental design, perhaps a fountain surrounding a portrait statue of Ike atop a high pedestal adorned with allegorical reliefs symbolizing his roles as president, general, and citizen (he served as president of Columbia University in the last capacity). Such a design was in fact submitted in the NCAS-ICAA counter-competition by architect Milton Grenfell and architect and sculptor Brian Kramer.

The official memorial competition is another sticking point, as there are doubts that Gehry emerged victorious from a level playing field. First of all, EMC chairman Rocco Siciliano — a decorated World War II vet, Eisenhower-administration official, and retired business executive — is a Gehry fan who was a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic building committee that oversaw the Disney Concert Hall project. Siciliano started dropping Gehry’s name at the very first EMC meeting, back in 2001, and informed the commission of the architect’s interest in the memorial project long before the competition. The competition process the commission established has fostered suspicion that the objective was to maximize Gehry’s chances of winning.

The competition was administered under the Design Excellence Program of the General Services Administration (GSA), a program that is supposed to line up talented, experienced architects for federal building projects. Announcement of the competition was therefore restricted to the Federal Business Opportunities website. Notices also appeared on the websites of the EMC, GSA, and the main professional associations for architects and landscape architects. In addition, GSA sent letters to 30 architectural or landscape-architectural offices to notify them of the competition. At this first stage, the competition involved not the submission of memorial designs but rather the submission of portfolios of previous work. A paltry total of 44 submissions resulted. These were reduced to a short list of seven design teams, which were invited to submit non-binding visions of the form an Ike memorial might take. Then four finalists were asked to further refine those visions.

It should be noted that David Eisenhower, one of Ike’s four grandchildren, vouched for the integrity of the competition process after Gehry came out on top in March 2009. (Eisenhower resigned from the memorial commission last December.) Still, at best, the commission and GSA found an extremely unsatisfactory way to run what should have been an open competition involving maximum publicity as well as the submission of memorial designs in the first stage — and by artists as well as architects. Had the winning entry been submitted by an inexperienced artist or architect, the EMC could have paired him or her with veteran professionals capable of ensuring sound execution of the chosen design.

The Eisenhower family is now united in opposition to Gehry’s design, and specifically to the metal scrims. Representative Issa is waiting for GSA to turn over documents pertaining to the memorial competition, and this has delayed review of the Gehry scheme by the National Capital Planning Commission — one of two key review boards, along with the Commission of Fine Arts — until the fall. Fine Arts has already fallen for Gehry’s memorial concept like a ton of bricks, and left to its own devices, NCPC will probably approve it as well. Siciliano and other EMC members — including vice chairman Senator Daniel K. Inouye (D., Hawaii), who was awarded the Medal of Honor for valor in World War II — are sounding the “Greatest Generation” theme in favor of the memorial’s speedy realization before that generation is entirely gone. But the Greatest Generation already has plenty of World War II memorials — abroad as well as in the United States, on the Mall and, of course, at Arlington National Cemetery, the biggest war memorial of all.

It’s possible, if not likely, that disaster will be averted. Several Republican congressmen, along with Northern Virginia Democrat Jim Moran, have come out against the design or even called for a new competition. No opposition has emerged in the Senate, at least partly because both Kansas senators serve on the EMC and have stood by Gehry. In the executive branch, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar — who controls the National Park Service, which will own and operate the Ike memorial — has come out in favor of taking the time “to get it right.”

Salazar could wind up brokering a compromise between the EMC and the Eisenhowers whereby Gehry’s scrims are scrapped — or at least significantly downsized. If his scrims go, that would mark the bitter end of the architect’s original concept, leaving a residual pastiche of stone, statuary, and inscriptions. Such a compromise might be politically appealing because Congress has already appropriated over $60 million for the memorial, of which the EMC has spent a significant portion. The temptation to pour good money after bad could prove well-nigh irresistible, but so could the political pressure not to. Here’s hoping Congress will just say no.

To get the memorial right, there should be a new competition with a commonsense program. The goal should be to secure a simple, sustainable, dignified design for the memorial as a means of enhancing the vitality and value, both cultural and economic, of its site — whether that turns out to be the space in front of the Johnson Building or not. The Ike-memorial program, in other words, should be conceived in holistic terms, in the spirit of the L’Enfant Plan (1791) for Washington, which so lucidly embraces the synergies between the practical and the symbolic realms involved in building great cities.

Unlike the EMC-sponsored charade, the new competition should allow classical as well as modernist designers a fair shot at winning, with design professionals from both camps constituting a minority on a jury consisting mainly of laymen. Of course, there is no guaranteeing that a great memorial would result from such a process. But it is a good deal more likely that a decent memorial, at least, would. In this instance, that would be cause for celebration.

– Mr. Leigh is an art and architecture critic based in Washington, D.C.

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