Beyond Buildings

 

Remembering the American Dream: The Eisenhower Memorial

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Image credit: Eisenhower Memorial Commission.

Monuments should be controversial, but the discussion about the proposed Eisenhower Memorial has quickly descended into the kind of mindless innuendo and vituperative allegations that now seem endemic to politics. This is especially unfortunate because a memorial should be exactly that, a way to fix in material form that which we want to remember, that which rises above daily concerns, and that which focuses our attention of our common achievements and tragedies.

Instead, the group attacking the design has descended into calling the artist a child molester, the architect subversive, and the whole scheme a secret plot. My favorite bit of absurd “evidence” is the “fact” that the benches, when you look at them in plan view, supposedly (I can't see it) spell out “IXXII,” which, if you interpret it in a certain way, could read “9-11” and thus must be a homage to the events of that day, I guess in a positive manner. You couldn’t make this stuff up, but they did.


Image Credit: Eisenhower Memorial Commission.

This is a shame, because this is a Memorial worth having a serious debate about, and it sounds as if the Eisenhower family (or some members of it) is more interested in that path. Like many recent structures of the sort, it moves away from only putting a statue on top of a pedestal and towards shaping a space to make us remember certain qualities. It started, at least in this country, with Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and continued with Lawrence Halprin’s more elaborate FDR Memorial. The 9-11 park is a recent example of the trend.

In this case, Gehry has chosen to make a simple and straightforward park–if anything, I wonder whether something so recognizable in the idiom of public spaces will work as a place to remember the deeds of one man. The architect has lifted the park out of its ordinariness by surrounding it on three sides by scrims mounted in front of fat columns. In earlier schemes, those elements, abstracted and denuded versions of their classical ancestors that once fronted temples and other places of import, were more prominent. Now the screen, printed with photographs from Eisenhower’s childhood home, as well as of him as General and as President, will predominate.


Image Credit: Eisenhower Foundation.

If it works according to the model (Gehry has eschewed the kind of computer renderings we count on these days to give us a facsimile of proposed reality), the bland facades of the surrounding buildings and the competing centers of power strewn along Washington’s axes will disappear, and you will find yourself immersed in a simpler, more rural place.

At the center, on top of a concrete slab, will sit the requisite statue of The Man, but here Eisenhower will be portrayed as a young boy, still in Kansas, looking out towards the career and future world he helped to shape.

It is a radical idea: the images of power are only ghostlike evocations, and what predominates in the place of innocence and strength from which Eisenhower rose. The statue is based on a photograph of the young boy on a camping trip, already possessing the sense of power and charisma that would lead him to such great heights.

Gehry’s design thus takes the idea of a memorial as a place that leads you back to or under ground, like going home or being buried alive for a moment, so that you can be reborn with a renewed appreciation of our lives and what sacrifices and vision made them possible, one step further by making the space an almost normal one. Greatness comes not from on high and does not evidence itself in grandeur, but comes from the strength of humble beginnings, and becomes a fleeting image, almost gone, but persistently present to remind us what has been achieved and to what we can aspire.

Isn’t that the American dream? Don’t we all believe that in this country you can rise from a simple place, filled with the bounties that make the United States so beautiful, and rise to exercise power wisely, only to make way for a new generation who can build on what you have made, leaving them with your wisdom? I like to think that is best version of that Dream.

Leave oversized statues of warriors striding off into the future to dictatorships. Let hidebound societies build memorials to the ways they have always done things. Let America create a memorial to one of its best scholar-warriors in a way that shows us how our greatness rises as a dream out of the past and a place we all share.

 
 

Comments (16 Total)

  • Posted by: L.A. Professor | Time: 7:27 PM Wednesday, March 14, 2012

    My Opinion- "It seems impossible to achieve any forward thinking dream today without the requisite input of negativity. Any design proposed for this memorial would still elicit the chorus of naysayers, no matter what form it took." - "The image of a young person and then the recounting of his achievements is forward thinking. Let it be." Would you be saying "Let it be." if it were a neoclassical white marble monument? There is nothing wrong with critique, in fact I think it necessary and good, and that there seems to be a significant level of objection to this design (from many quarters) should matter- Eisenhower family or not, though their arguments are well structured and considered. You can read it here: www.eisenhowermemorial.net/docs/Eisenhower_Family_letters_asking_NCPC_to_halt_Frank_Gehrys_Eisenhower_Memorial.pdf Why not rebut that instead of telling us what is 'forward thinking', as if that's automatically a good. This would become a much more interesting and constructive debate about the Gehry design. Pretend you're on the jury for some graduate students thesis crit if that helps.

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  • Posted by: My opinion | Time: 6:21 PM Tuesday, March 13, 2012

    It seems impossible to achieve any forward thinking dream today without the requisite input of negativity. Any design proposed for this memorial would still elicit the chorus of naysayers, no matter what form it took. Aaron Betsky's article is absolutely correct and I think the design is original, exciting and would be a destination because it is not a usual monument. As crass as it seems, I don't care what the Eisenhower family thinks. Eisenhower belongs to American history, not to relatives who have the same biases or prejudices we all have. Their opinion shpuld not carry a greater weight than the selection committee. The image of a young person and then the recounting of his achievements is forward thinking. Let it be.

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  • Posted by: L.A. Professor | Time: 5:38 PM Tuesday, March 13, 2012

    "Leave oversized statues of warriors striding off into the future to dictatorships" Replace the word 'striding' with 'staring' and ask yourself if Betsky was as bothered by the MLK memorial. Arguments driven by idol worship or ideology are poor arguments whether from the right or the left.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 5:29 PM Tuesday, March 13, 2012

    Betsky, you are such a Gehry suck up.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 4:45 PM Tuesday, March 13, 2012

    Celebrating Eisenhower as a Horatio Alger-esque boy-made-good seems too banal a organizing metaphor for a memorial to a figure like Eisenhower. To be sure, such greatness as he possessed was grounded in fundamentally simple qualities of organization, military sublimation of ego, and personal integrity. But surely there are better ways to represent those qualities than a statue of a boy set within the pastoral confines of a neoclassical urban driving range. No matter how much the man enjoyed a good round of golf.

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  • Posted by: hays layerd | Time: 3:07 PM Tuesday, March 13, 2012

    Obviously a few errors, but great article overall. I'm not sure I can envision this rural setting in a place like DC, but depicting Eisenhower as a young boy is brilliant in that the memorial takes on an inspirational role for children that they can achieve great things throug hard work and sacrifice.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 7:45 PM Wednesday, February 29, 2012

    I agree with all the other comments. The monument is a terrible design, which would blight Washington and which does not succeed in commemorating Eisenhower's achievements. The article is shallow and mindless, beginning with the first sentence, "monuments should be controversial." No one who actually thought about what he was writing would begin with a statement that is so obviously cut off from reality.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 8:26 PM Friday, February 17, 2012

    Betsky's smear piece is riddled with errors and sloppiness. Nowhere in the report does it say IXXII, just IXXI, which is what did appear in the design and which does say 911 in Roman numerals. Perhaps Betsky never got to the Roman numeral part of 2nd grade.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 6:47 PM Tuesday, February 14, 2012

    Huh? "...the competing centers of power strewn along Washington’s axes will disappear, and you will find yourself immersed in a simpler, more rural place." Betsky, we are NOT in a rural setting, we are in urban DC. where we WANT to see competing centers of power. Part of the point of DC's brilliant urbanism. Creating a rural setting in DC: Another reason Gehry's monstrosity = fail.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 6:18 PM Tuesday, February 14, 2012

    From what is shown, I cannot really see any design worth. Scrims on columns. Really? The real problem is Betsky's sloppy/ pro Gehry (former employer) puff piece. I am with the nay sayers.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 4:31 PM Tuesday, February 14, 2012

    Betsky's "a memorial should be controversial" idea has no validity other than his own. He likes the design and thinks everyone else should get on board. Guess what, the emperor has been seen and he has no clothes. I wish modernists would stop making this about style and address real issues like Leon Krier has done: http://www.metropolismag.com/pov/20120214/eisenhower-memorial-washington-d-c

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 6:23 PM Monday, February 13, 2012

    "Monuments should be controversial. . ." Why? Asserting something doesn't make it true.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 6:21 PM Monday, February 13, 2012

    I read the letter from the family and support their opinion that the gehry design misses the mark. I think the design is way too large and not permanent enough to serve as a monument. Of course it proposed to be of metal scrims and photgraphic images - how very gehry. It will be trashed in less than a decade.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 5:29 PM Monday, February 13, 2012

    It is easy to criticize anything, spend time instead to create a design idea which is better. Talk is cheap and "gustibus non disputandum". By the way, IXXII is 912 (not 911); am I missing something? AAC Architect

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 2:37 PM Monday, February 13, 2012

    "Greatness comes not from on high and does not evidence itself in grandeur, but comes from the strength of humble beginnings, and becomes a fleeting image, almost gone, but persistently present to remind us what has been achieved and to what we can aspire." "...Let America create a memorial to one of its best scholar-warriors in a way that shows us how our greatness rises as a dream out of the past and a place we all share." A worthless remarks. pablum. These are the kinds of comments for which a third year Architecture student would be rightfully excoriated, if he were presenting to his instructors. Eisenhower was not great because of his origins. He was great becase of his achievements. The memorial should celebrate those. Your argument would be akin to wishing for a Lincoln memorial that showcased his several failed attempts at running for elected office... That's not what made Lincoln great. Come on. My opinion is that memorials appropriately commemorate the leadership and achievements of women and men; they should not repress them by celebrating in their place humble beginnings. Don't inflate the success of the design by effectively denigrating all of the other memorials in the capitol - of men, women and their achievements - that make it a great city.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 1:27 PM Monday, February 13, 2012

    Hey, don’t forget that the subversive architect is also a Canadian, eh!

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.