The debate over Frank Gehry, FAIA’s design for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, D.C., has been heated, and that’s putting it mildly. At one point, presidential granddaughter Susan Eisenhower compared the scheme’s enormous woven-metal tapestries depicting the Kansas plains to the barbed-wire fences of Nazi death camps. And in April, the National Capital Planning Commission threw up a regulatory hurdle, disapproving the design due to concerns that the tapestries and their 80-foot supporting columns would obstruct views of the U.S. Capitol.
It only gets worse. Last month, the architects offered up a revision with fewer tapestries. Rep. Darrell Issa, R.-Calif., aiming for compromise, suggested the tapestries be cut altogether. Gehry Partners threatened to disown the project if that happens. And Susan Eisenhower and her sister Anne Eisenhower called for “a complete redesign, which is open to all, including Gehry Partners.” Lines have been drawn in the sand on the beaches of Normandy.
The conflict bears the taint of partisan politics, but the collective animus toward the design seems visceral, almost feral. What gives? Compared to Gehry’s signature extreme geometries, the memorial design is sober and deeply rooted in the classical tradition. The giant rectangle of columns and tapestries is a lineal descendant of the agoras and forums of western antiquity, just as John Russell Pope’s Jefferson Memorial recalls the Pantheon in Rome. It’s the kind of precedent that should appeal to even the most conservative audience.
The problem, at least in part, is that Gehry’s columns lack acanthus leaves. By adhering to modernist conventions of raw material and abstract form, the memorial design is wide open to interpretation. Fair-minded literalists—which is to say, many if not the majority of Americans—won’t necessarily read it as an echo of Periclean Athens, writ in stainless steel and concrete. Instead, they easily might perceive it as an affront to Eisenhower’s memory—inappropriately industrialized and, perhaps worse, oversized. In The Washington Post, Roger K. Lewis, FAIA—a thoughtful critic, and no literalist—used the word “bloat” to describe Gehry’s expansive (and expensive) approach to the 4-acre site.
So what would be preferable? That’s easy. Eisenhower, his descendants say, was a modest man, and he would want a modest memorial. Before his death last year, the president’s son, John Eisenhower, offered an alternative vision: “a green open space with a simple statue in the middle, and quotations from his most important sayings.” It sounds nice.
To a generation and more, Eisenhower was a hero, and it must be bewildering that Gehry doesn’t treat him as such in a conventional way. But here’s the catch: Critically approved progressive artists don’t do straight portraiture, any more than their architect counterparts do straight classicism. Those who do, do so at their peril. One of my predecessors as AIA magazine editor, Deborah Deitsch, Hon. AIA, likened Friedrich St. Florian’s World War II Memorial, with its twin triumphal arches, to the work of Adolf Hitler’s architect Albert Speer. (So, you see, the insult rubs both ways.)
Many architects and artists are skeptical of the Great Man approach to commemoration. Apotheosis isn’t part of the creative vocabulary anymore, at least not without a big dose of irony. Gehry sidestepped the issue and depicted the landscape of Eisenhower’s home state, rather than the Normandy landings, portrayed him as a barefoot boy, rather than a warrior on horseback or statesman enthroned. In this, the architect certainly means no disrespect. His instinct is to humanize the man, not deify him.
As painful as it may be, if Gehry Partners withdraws, the scheme should be scrapped and a new design competition should be held. In this tale of two cultures colliding, the architect’s viewpoint deserves as much respect as the Eisenhower family’s.