General Eisenhower in a jeep, in Europe during World War II (From the Internet)
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Rendering of latest Eisenhower memorial design by Frank Gehry
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Counterproposal by Rodney Mims Cook and Michael Franck
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Plan of the Eisenhower monument site
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Rendering of recently updated Gehry design
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Winning counterproposal by Daniel Cook (no relation to Rodney Mims Cook above)
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Eisenhower at age 17. This photo may become the central image in Gehry's recast iconography for the memorial
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Counterproposal by Sylvester Bartos and Whitley Esteban
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Drawing by Dhiru Thadani, from excellent essay by Thadani analyzing the Gehry proposal and counterproposals. That essay, from the New Urban Network on July 6, may be read here.
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Frank Gehry's proposed modernist design for a memorial to Dwight David Eisenhower on the National Mall is being blasted by a well-aimed (and well-deserved) bombardment.
This summer, Gehry's proposal suffered the indignity of a design competition held to find a classical alternative -- so as to honor Eisenhower more properly. The competition basically said that it's okay to object to the design of the world's most famous architect.
Last week, the National Archives held a forum with Gehry about his design. The proposal is not his typical whirly-swirly concoction. It features a relatively staid, up-and-down set of 80-foot posts upholding metal mesh screens the size of basketball courts (wow!) to display imagery related to Eisenhower.
Still, the forum audience peppered Gehry with hostile questions. Though he is more used to being fawned over than criticized, this was no big surprise. America has a long history of honoring its heroes in a grand manner. Kicking tradition in the shins, as the Gehry design does, was sure to raise a lot of eyebrows.
But it did not end there. The National Capital Planning Commission -- which must approve the Gehry design before it is built -- has also raised some difficult questions.
The Associated Press reported "strong reservations" among commission members about the scale of the posts, and the size of the mesh screens, which could block views to and from the U.S. Department of Education, across the street, not to mention views of the U.S. Capitol down Maryland Avenue. Also noted was Gehry's apparent desire to play down Ike's military career and play up his Kansas roots. [AP's report from Washington Post is here.]
Now the Eisenhower family itself has joined the chorus of criticism. Last week, the general's three granddaughters called for a pause in the memorial's design process.
Susan Eisenhower and her sisters Anne and Mary Jean issued a statement saying that they "are concerned about the concept for the memorial, as well as the scope and scale of it. We feel that now is the time to get these elements right -- before any final design approvals are given and before any ground is broken."
I called Susan Eisenhower to ask about the statement, and she emphasized that the family is "unified" in its concerns. She sought to clarify reports that her brother, David, "supports the design." She said that he has said only that as a member of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission that is sponsoring the memorial, he "supports the work of the commission."
The Eisenhowers, whose letter thanked the Congress and the White House for honoring their grandfather, worry that the Gehry proposal, in its scale, misrepresents the essential humility of General Eisenhower.
Regarding that, Gehry says: "I've read everything I could find about him, and he kept referring to Abilene [Kansas, where the Texas-born Eisenhower was raised]. He talks about the barefoot boy who went on this odyssey."
But Gehry has overreacted, confusing a memorial that honors modesty with a modest memorial. He amended the memorial to honor Eisenhower's roots rather than the man himself or his achievements as supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in World War II and as 34th president. Gehry has reduced the stature of the memorial without much apparent reduction in its mammoth scale.
Gehry's high-handedness was on display at the National Archives forum. From the audience, Eric Wind, chairman of the National Civic Art Society, whose competition got the critical ball rolling, asked: "How does this memorial design reflect [Eisenhower's] great deeds and his great works? I think of . . . the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument . . ."
To which Gehry replied, "The Lincoln Memorial is in the form of a Greek temple. What's that got to do with Lincoln?" Huh?! So the only proper memorial for Lincoln would be, in Gehry's opinion, what? A log cabin?
In fact, Lincoln's role as savior of the republic is perfectly reflected by his memorial's classical idiom. Classicism combines grandeur and simplicity to express the classical virtue of humility. I do not want to suggest that the Eisenhower family's concerns are identical to mine, but Eisenhower's greatness deserves the dignified representation offered by classicism.
The Washington Post's Philip Kennicott has put his finger on what Gehry wants: "To break with centuries of tradition in the aesthetics of memorialization." Gehry is not the first, only the latest architect to inflict such a break on the public -- and with the same predictable result: a negative public reaction. The public is tired of being the lab rats for modern architecture's addiction to experimentation. May the spirit of General Eisenhower put an end to that.
[The National Civic Art Society was joined by the Mid-Atlantic chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art in sponsoring the classical counter-competition.]
[In addition to the essay by Dhiru Thadani linked to from the caption of his drawing (at left), here is a fine essay by NCAS board secretary Justin Shubow, in the Daily Caller.]
David Brussat is a member of The Journal's editorial board (email@example.com). This column, with more illustrations, is on his blog Architecture Here and There at providencejournal.com.
* * *Counterproposal by Scott Collison