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End of the Line for Gehry’s Eisenhower Memorial

Modern architecture is not suited to Eisenhower's memorial
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The change is quite amazing. A year ago, it looked like Frank Gehry’s proposal for the Eisenhower Memorial on the National Mall was a done deal and construction was set to begin. But now critics of Gehry’s ill-considered plan (this writer among them) have reason to hope that a new, better plan is being called for. Over the past months, objections to the Gehry proposal have mounted as details of the planned monument filtered out to the public. They became so noticeable that Rep. Rob Bishop from Utah has now introduced legislation calling for a brand-new design competition and the elimination of nearly $100 million in financing for the Gehry plan. Essentially, Congress seems ready to call for a “do-over.”

In testimony before Rep. Bishop’s subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation, most supporters of the Gehry plan did not laud specifics of the proposal but rather fell back on the “appeal to authority,” the essence of which is: Gehry is a genius; therefore his design must be wonderful. This line of reasoning was epitomized by the letter that the American Institute of Architects (AIA) filed with the subcommittee.

The letter stated that “the AIA doesn’t offer any assessment on whether the Eisenhower Memorial Design is good or bad.” Nevertheless, the AIA’s letter insists that the legislation to halt funding for the Gehry plan “ . . . is nothing more than an effort to intimidate the innovative thinking for which our profession is recognized at home and around the globe.” The AIA’s position seems to be that even if the monument’s design is bad, taxpayers should fund it because it is “innovative.”

The AIA’s letter was at least civil and professional. Other proponents, such as Christopher Knight, architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, got downright nasty about opponents of the Gehry plan. Mr. Knight became especially apoplectic over testimony offered by Justin Shubow on behalf of the National Civic Art Society (NCAS). But instead of refuting criticisms of the memorial’s design and its selection process, Knight let loose an ad hominem rant about the opponents, accusing them (among other things) of a “McCarthyite attack” and “shrieking like Hecuba.”

While supporters have been vague on the merits of the sprawling monument, critics have been quite specific about what’s wrong, not only with the design, but also with the secretive process that produced it. Testimony from the NCAS offered a detailed dissection of the opaque selection process that picked Gehry and also provided an extensive analysis of the design’s aesthetic and symbolic shortcomings, dubious cost estimates, longevity problems with specified materials and even life safety issues posed by chunks of ice falling from the metal mesh “tapestries” that are part of Gehry's design. An even more extensive analysis of the memorial’s flaws is contained in the NCAS’s special online report.

The Eisenhower opposition

Even though the arguments offered by opponents of the Gehry scheme seem quite persuasive, they might not have thwarted the project’s momentum were it not for the outspoken opposition of the Eisenhower family – especially Susan Eisenhower, Ike’s granddaughter. Ms. Eisenhower offered several well-reasoned misgivings about the design, the most important of which is that the memorial does not focus on Eisenhower's towering achievements during World War II and his two terms in the White House.

When asked what type of memorial she would envisage for her grandfather, Susan Eisenhower said, “The Lincoln Memorial is a wonderful example of strength and theme. And this is what I want this memorial to be – an inspiration for who we are as a people, and what we accomplished during those years.”

That sure sounds right to me.

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