An ugly fight has broken out in Washington, D.C. Given the acrimonious state of affairs in our nation’s capital, that may not seem unusual, or even noteworthy, but in this case Frank Gehry, FAIA, is stuck in the middle of the brawl. In recent weeks, the architect’s design for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial, on a site adjacent to the National Mall, has engendered a violent backlash from political pundits such as George Will and David Frum. Eisenhower’s own family has asked for a redesign. Even architect Léon Krier took a hatchet to Gehry’s scheme on the Chicago Tribune website.
Don’t get me wrong: Major public projects deserve careful public scrutiny. A nonprofit called the National Civic Art Society (NCAS) seems to be leading the opposition to Gehry’s Eisenhower Memorial scheme. In a 153-page report, NCAS voices legitimate concerns—about the scale, materials, and durability of Gehry’s design, for instance, as well as about the selection process, which took the form of a limited request for qualifications instead of an open design competition. These concerns get lost amid the report’s partisan and confrontational tone. In a recent post on the ARCHITECT website, critic and museum director Aaron Betsky observes that the debate “has descended into the kind of mindless innuendo and vituperative allegations that now seem endemic to politics.” I agree.
Frank Gehry is “unworthy of Eisenhower,” according to NCAS, in part because he declined to work on the World Trade Center reconstruction. Unworthy? Are we talking about the same architect? While it’s fair to say that different jobs require different talents, and that any design can benefit from review and revision, it’s absurd to claim that Gehry—who has won the AIA Gold Medal, the Pritzker Prize, Britain’s Royal Gold Medal, Japan’s Praemium Imperiale, the Order of Canada, and the National Medal of Arts, and who routinely is described as one of the world’s greatest living architects—is categorically “unworthy” of designing a presidential memorial. The assertion is unfair to Gehry and insulting to the architecture profession that broadly supports him.
The NCAS leadership is a coalition of traditionalist architects and political conservatives who want the Eisenhower Memorial to have a classical design. One member of the NCAS board of advisers, art historian and former National Endowment for the Humanities chairman Bruce Cole, writes, “Gehry, whose buildings often look like the wreckage of 747s or drunken skyscrapers, purposely subverts the order and stability of traditional architecture.”
Cole is missing the point, and so is NCAS, which partnered with the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art on an alternative design competition for the memorial. They needn’t have bothered, if generating a classical scheme was the goal. With a little imagination, they’d see that they already have one. Gehry loves traditional architecture; he just has a different way of showing it than straight historicists do. For some, the Guggenheim in Bilbao may frighteningly resemble a titanium tidalwave, but those curves have roots in the draperies of medieval sculpture. And the Eisenhower Memorial recalls the agora of ancient Priene, with its colonnade enclosing three sides of a rectangular public space.
The NCAS report also slams Charles Ray, an artist who is advising Gehry on a life-size sculpture inspired by an archival photograph of an adolescent Eisenhower. Ray’s work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art; NCAS objects to the depiction of Eisenhower as a youth and maintains that Ray’s sculptures “sexualize children and are obscene.” While Ray’s oeuvre does include nude figures of children, so do most depictions of the Madonna and Child.
In a one-sentence footnote, the NCAS report effectively concedes that the ado about Ray and the statue amounts to nothing: “Despite the involvement of sculptor Charley Ray, Eisenhower will presumably be … fully clothed.” Moreover, as the memorial’s opponents habitually fail to mention, the statue of little Ike will be flanked by two positively pharaonic bas-reliefs of the adult Eisenhower, as president and as supreme allied commander in Europe.
I find it hard to sympathize with the group’s lament that the selection process was “clearly oriented to favor the sharpest, most jagged of the architectural cutting-edge,” not because I oppose Classicism (which I don’t), but because the tone of attack is offensive, not persuasive—a counterproductive throwback to the Joe McCarthy school of demagoguery. As Eisenhower said of McCarthy, “I will not get into the gutter with this guy.”
Moreover, the group’s claims of victimhood ring hollow. NCAS boasts that historicism remains “the norm in American residential architecture.” Of the “six existing national presidential monuments and memorials in Washington, D.C., five … are orderly, decorous, and classical in style, constructed of white marble, and decorated with ornament and figurative sculpture.” That’s hardly the track record of an underdog in need of affirmative action.
Until now, the culture wars have largely overlooked architecture, which, after all, is a nonrepresentational art form. Politicos find it much easier to pick on visual artists, preferably dead gay ones such as Robert Mapplethorpe and David Wojnarowicz, who cannot defend themselves. So watch out. NCAS’s tactics expose architecture as a ripe new target. Gehry, for his part, wisely has remained silent as the grave.