NCAS: Rybczynski Is Wrong on the Eisenhower Memorial

Writing for Better! Cities & Towns, Milton Grenfell, vice-chairman of the National Civic Art Society, demolished Witold Rybczynski’s defense of the Eisenhower Memorial  in the New York Times:

Witold Rybczynski’s recent New York Times op-ed piece, “Don’t Undermine the Eisenhower Memorial Design,” contains five incorrect assertions and two misleading ones. Thus, it not surprisingly comes to a flawed conclusion: that Frank Gehry’s proposed memorial in Washington to Dwight D. Eisenhower is acceptable.

First, Rybczynski attests that the “memorial would not sprawl over the entire site….” Yet images clearly show assorted ramps and steps, inscribed stone walls, scattered stone rectangular solids with people sitting on them (benches?), dozens of improbably gargantuan trees randomly strewn about, two massive cubes with overly blown-up, oppressively large photos carved into them, and of course, the controversial boy-sized statue of a seated boy (that’s Ike) idling on a ledge.

And let’s not forget the ten  80-foot-tall pylons, 11 feet in diameter, marching with their iron screens down three sides of this 4-acre theme park gone bad. If this higgledy-piggledy array of disparate objects spread over four football fields doesn’t resemble sprawl, it certainly doesn’t resemble good urbanism.

Which leads to Rybczynski’s second incorrect statement, namely his referring to this piece of land as a “public park.” In the accepted planning lexicon, it is in fact an urban square. This is not merely a matter of semantics. A place must be understood for what it is, and not for what it is not. A successful urban square must comport to the accepted design conventions for its type. Gehry’s proposal ignores and violates these conventions, and due to his apparent ignorance about typology, it will be unable to create the kind of urban square that L’Enfant planned for Washington.

Third, Rybczynski refers to a “colonnade” that the 80-foot pylons would create. Yet these featureless cylinders without bases, caps, or entasis are, by definition, not columns. Furthermore, their spacing, one-third of a football field apart, would leave an intercolumniation (if they were columns) in violation of all classical canons. No columns, no colonnade. And since there are no colonnades, no entablatures, no stylobates, and no ornament (and the so-called columns are on only three of the memorial’s four sides), it is patently incorrect to refer to this as a classical temple, or classical anything for that matter. Ergo, Rybczynski’s fourth incorrect statement.

Fifth, Rybczynski pronounces Gehry as “our finest living architect.” Really? Gehry’s litigation-plagued failed Stata Center for MIT gave it the dubious distinction of landing on the cover of John Silber’s book, Architecture of the Absurd: How ‘Genius’ Disfigured a Practical Art. His Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA also led to complaints due to the excessive heat radiating from its shiny metal skin into neighboring apartments. Even Gehry’s most acclaimed building, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, was exposed by Ethan Kent, of the internationally esteemed Project for Public Spaces, to be an abject urban failure, leaving a crime-ridden urban desert all around it.

As if this were not enough, there are two paragraphs in Rybczynski’s piece that could easily mislead a reader. First, Rybczynski states that he has “seen full size mock-ups of the screens on the site [and] I am convinced that their size will not be out of scale with the surroundings.” Yet in point of fact, he saw only a full-scale fragment of one of the steel mesh panels on site. Clearly the difference between a fragment and a full screen, each of the seven the size of two basketball courts, is a significant one.

Lastly, Rybczynski insinuates that the Eisenhower sisters’ dissatisfaction is the source and summit of the opposition to Gehry’s memorial. This is not true. The growing public dissatisfaction with the Gehry’s Eisenhower Memorial began with the launch of the counterproposal competition hosted by the National Civic Art Society and Institute for Classical Architecture & Art’s Mid-Atlantic Chapter last March. The award ceremony in June in the Rayburn House Office Building revealed to the public the monstrosity of Gehry’s proposal and showed alternatives designs rooted in the aesthetic verities of the humanist tradition of monument-making. Since then, the groundswell in opposition to the “Eyesore Memorial” has grown into a tsunami.

The Eisenhower family neither started this opposition movement, nor do they lead it. They are merely the public face for tens of thousands of their fellow Americans who want a memorial that preserves the memory of the exemplary achievements of one of our best, and not so much for Ike and his family, or those of us old enough to remember Ike, but for the millions of Americans yet unborn.

The National Civic Art Society does agree with Rybczynski on his final point: that “compromise and consensus … are a poor way to design a monument.” We believe that the Gehry design is fundamentally flawed and that no amount of “compromise and consensus” will produce a monument even adequate, much less excellent.

We also believe the process should begin again with an open competition, and that the winning finalist should be voted on by Congress. Let the American people, through our elected representatives, decide on this monument. With all due respect to Rep. Raul Grijalva, who stated at a March 20 House subcommittee hearing that he thought a hearing on the Eisenhower Memorial was outside of the purview of Congress, we believe a monument for our nation should unequivocally be included in “the purview of Congress,” particularly since taxpayers are paying over $100 million to build it and will be paying millions more to maintain it annually. What’s more, it is our nation’s memory that is at stake.

It’s time we stopped relying on the increasingly strange and estranged art elite to tell us what things mean and what we should like. Americans of all ages and conditions appreciate the memorials to Lincoln, Jefferson, Grant, etc., without the help of art experts. Why should a memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower be any different?

Milton Grenfell is an architect in Washington, DC, and vice chairman of the National Civic Art Society. He was the winner of the Institute for Classical Architecture & Art’s Arthur Ross Award in 1997.

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