Remembering the American Dream: The Eisenhower Memorial
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.