The saga of Frank Gehry’s design for the Eisenhower Memorial continues. Last April, the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), one of the federal agencies that must approve the memorial, turned thumbs down on the design. On Sept. 4, one of Gehry’s partners, Craig Webb, returned to NCPC to present a revised plan. The changes are considerable. The tapestry side panels included in the original design, which were the subject of considerable criticism, have been removed entirely, and now single columns mark two corners of what the architects call an “urban room.” This change opens up the view shed along Maryland Avenue to the Capitol from 95 feet to 135 feet, which was one of NCPC’s concerns, and it also allows the existing buildings (the Cohen Federal Building and the Federal Aviation Administration Building) on the east and west of the site to define the memorial square, which was another.
NCPC, which “represent federal and local constituencies with a stake in planning for the nation's capital,” is charged with overseeing urban planning; aesthetic matters are the purview of the Commission of Fine Arts, the other federal agency that reviews memorials in the District. Nevertheless, at least in the case of the Eisenhower Memorial, NCPC seems intent on making judgments about design. Listening to the commissioners struggling to elucidate subjects such as “scale” and “spatial definition,” their lack of architectural or artistic expertise was painfully evident.
The most cogent remarks came from Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Cal.), who is one of seven ex-officio members on the commission. Issa is in favor of going ahead with the memorial design in its current state. “We can’t go back to square one,” he said. “We can’t throw away 15 years, based on the idea that for another $10 or $20 million, starting from scratch, somehow we will get to anything other than another opportunity for it not to be perfect for someone.”
Unlike his fellow commissioners, Issa seemed to understand that Gehry’s re-design is mainly a (reluctant) response to the NCPC staff chipping away at his concept. More chipping, Issa observed, would only further weaken the project. “I think we lose something if we continue to say ‘Change it, change it.’ ”
Issa made another perceptive observation. The 440-foot-long metal tapestry carries an image of the bare Kansas plain. Kansas was Eisenhower’s birthplace, although a critic has said that the landscape looks like it could be Kazakhstan. “I’ve been in Kazakhstan, and he’s correct,” said Issa. The original concept had been that the tapestries would represent an important event in Eisenhower’s life, such as the D-Day Normandy landing, or the enforcement of civil rights at Central High School in Little Rock. Ark., by federal troops (which were sent by Eisenhower). Issa’s point is that the controversial tapestry would be more compelling if it told a compelling story. Instead, bowing to criticism from one side or another, Gehry ended up with nondescript trees, made even less memorable since they are surrounded by actual trees.
Issa, who represents a district in Southern California, recounted that he recently visited Gehry’s office in Los Angeles, and was shown “the rejected designs, the semi-rejected designs, and the you-think-we-would-reject-them designs.” He let slip that Gehry told him that he would be willing to give up the tapestry altogether and take his name off the project. It may yet come to that.
Although Issa offered a compromise—approve the design but start by building only the landscape elements—the shrill critics of Gehry’s concept have not shown any desire to compromise. For them it is back to square one or nothing. An obdurate position, but one that is not at all unusual in the nation’s capital these days. The September presentation to NCPC was for information only; no vote was taken. Gehry is expected to return later this year to seek final approval.
Judging from the tenor of the NCPC meeting, there is a slim chance that his project will be approved. But as Issa told his fellow commissioners, “our support will still face a number of challenges that undoubtedly will delay it.”
Rybczynski was a member of the Commission of Fine Arts when it approved Gehry's concept design for the Eisenhower Memorial in 2011.
Witold Rybczynski, Hon. FAIA, is an emeritus professor of
architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. He has contributed to the Atlantic,
New Yorker, New York Review of Books, and The New York Times.
The recipient of the 2007 Vincent Scully Prize, he was honored in 2014 with the National Design Award for
Design Mind from the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. His latest book is a collection of essays titled "Mysteries of the Mall" (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux).