Stars and Stripes: WWI Memorial Shows How to Redesign Ike’s
Organizers of the stalled presidential memorial to Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower should look to another memorial’s example to get their own tribute back on track. Last month a newly authorized federal commission announced plans to complete a World War I Memorial two blocks from the White House in just three years, in time for the 100th anniversary of the Great War’s end. Planning for the Eisenhower Memorial, by contrast, has lasted 16 years, and its scheduled completion date of Memorial Day 2015 has now passed without construction even begun.
That is because the Eisenhower Memorial has fallen hostage to endless debate over one architect’s controversial design that, despite widespread objections, the Eisenhower Memorial Commission will not reconsider. In choosing the famous architect Frank Gehry even before he finalized a design, the commission also departed radically from the standard public process for designing national memorials, through public competitions that are open to everyone.
The World War One Centennial Commission has wisely revived this public process for its own Washington memorial. Public competitions have been used for every memorial designed for the National Mall since 1981, when a 20-year-old college student was chosen to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. This choice was possible because the judges in that competition considered anonymous designs solely on the merit of their ideas. The process gave equal opportunity to amateurs and professionals, prevented any unfair advantage based on reputation, and kept design focused on ideas, not personalities. For these reasons the Vietnam Veterans Memorial created a template for future public competitions, which have produced both traditional and modern memorials while consistently building consensus through public participation.
The Eisenhower Memorial Commission abandoned this proven practice when it sought a designer instead of a design. The commission followed a government program more often used for federal courthouses, which considers only registered architects based on their past work and reputations. The commission chose Gehry before he finalized a design, on the assumption that once finalized his design would be workable.
But it’s the process that chose Gehry that’s ultimately to blame. Its focus during the selection process on designer personality rather than design ideas shifted attention away from Eisenhower, as the current debate over a famous architect’s problematic design illustrates. Nor do we have the more workable alternatives that runners-up in a public competition would have provided.
The Gehry design has become too controversial to build, as lawmakers have made clear by refusing to fund its construction since 2012. Nevertheless there is consensus for an Eisenhower Memorial. To get it built we need to find a more unifying design, through a public competition that is open to everyone, including Gehry. Experience shows that’s the best way not only to find the consensus every memorial needs to be realized, but also to communicate Eisenhower’s particular legacy, which after all is about consensus-building and fiscal stewardship, not controversy and high costs.