Providence Journal: Build a Real Memorial to Eisenhower
From the David Brussat, who sits on the editorial board of the Providence Journal:
Build a Real Memorial to Eisenhower
By David Brussat
April 23, 2014 03:41 PM
The horizon keeps receding for Frank Gehry’s notion of what a memorial to Dwight Eisenhower should look like. The other day his design was rejected by the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) for narrowing the view corridor down Maryland Avenue to the U.S. Capitol.
Recently, the U.S. Congress slashed a $51 million request by the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission (created by Congress in 1999) to $1 million, blocking money for construction and leaving the memorial commission with, as an editorial in The Weekly Standard put it, “barely enough money to pay the electric bill and tip the cleaning lady.”
The Eisenhower family remains adamant that the gargantuan scale of the Gehry design violates the general’s personal sense of humility and that its features disrespect his military and political achievements.
President Obama appointed the most recent memorial commission member, Bruce Cole, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities who has been a leading opponent of the Gehry design.
Eight of the 12 commissioners are members of Congress, including Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, chairman of the committee that axed the memorial’s construction funding. Ike’s grandson, David, was on the commission until he resigned in the wake of family objections to the design. Its chairman, Rocco Siciliano, served in the Eisenhower administration and is an old Gehry friend and ally on earlier projects by the architect, leading some to suspect that Gehry’s selection was not entirely by the book.
Among them is Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. He is a California Republican who also serves on the same NCPC that rejected the Gehry design by a vote of 7 to 3 on April 3. Republican lawmakers have joined a bipartisan rank of political pundits and design critics in opposing the memorial’s design. Few Democrats have defended it. In The New Yorker, Jeffrey Frank wrote that it “has managed to achieve something rare in Washington: in true bipartisan spirit, almost everyone hates it.”
The commission has already spent $62 million, with zilch to show. If completed, the memorial would cost $142 million in mostly taxpayer dollars. Unlike the national World War II memorial commission, the Ike commission has raised little private money — even though it offers a meeting with the great architect himself to donors of $3 million or more. (Donors of just $2 million are chopped liver?)
The commission still has about $30 million of your tax dollars in its piggy bank. Its apparatchiks could arrange to overstay their welcome for years, further delaying any memorial.
After the unexpected NCPC rejection, a staff architect for Gehry Partners, no doubt barking his master’s voice, said: “We are staying with the overall big ideas for the project.”
Past requests for revision have been ignored by Gehry. Except for switching a statue of Ike from a “barefoot boy” to a young man, Gehry has done little but add trees and tweak bas reliefs of scenes from Eisenhower’s life.
The best that can be said of the design is that it is very unlike Gehry’s previous work. Not only does it lack goofy swirls but it actually fits into its context between the Air & Space Museum and the U.S. Department of Education.
The design’s sculptural space is bounded by the feature that irked the NCPC — a set of eight woven steel “tapestries,” totaling more than two football fields in length held by 11 unadorned posts 10 feet in diameter and 80 feet high.
Perhaps this resembles an unfinished access ramp onto Ike’s national highway system or, as Susan Eisenhower put it in testimony to Congress, the Nazi concentration camps and Iron Curtain her grandfather fought as general and president. Either way, the design seems to intentionally reject the long history of beautiful commemorative classical architecture in the nation’s capital and flies in the face of Eisenhower’s personal aesthetic taste.
In short, it is an ugly memorial in an ugly context. A proper memorial would purposely violate its context, using beauty to begin healing one of the grandeur-free zones plopped by planners into the city’s monumental core.
Indeed, the Eisenhower Memorial Commission epitomizes the architecture-industrial complex, power-hungry and heedless of the public weal: exactly what Ike warned against. Its $30 million kitty should be commandeered to hold an open design competition and then to build a monument that honors the statesman general rather than the celebrity architect.
David Brussat ([email protected]
com) is a member of The Journal’s editorial board.