My last column about the Eisenhower memorial design by Frank Gehry concluded with the hope that the Eisenhower family would weigh in on the proposal. They did so last week, in a statement calling for a pause in the design process. Thursday's column will unveil the statement, and put it in context amid criticism incoming (so to speak) from mortars and bazookas positioned on various heights around the District (of Columbia).
The National Civic Art Society sponsored the alternative design competition for the memorial this summer, along with the Mid-Atlantic chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art. The vital role of the NCAS in pushing back against Gehry's design continues to drive the issue.
A source who attended last Wednesday's public forum at the National Archives (lovely building!) held to discuss the design with Gehry kindly taped the event and diligently transcribed portions, and sent me the transcript. It is quite revealing, and it is here:
Introduction by General Carl W. Reddel [from the Eisenhower Memorial Commission]: ...and tonight as a result of the leadership of David Ferriero [Archivist of the U.S.], who has recognized the unique relationship between the designer of the Eisenhower Memorial and the great president that we are honoring. In a nutshell, one of the great transitional leaders in American history was Dwight David Eisenhower: Last president born in the nineteenth century, among other things, the first president to look at reconnaissance photographs taken from satellites in space that he put there. A transitional leader with many other levels, and tonight we have the privilege of hearing from another great transitional leader--in architecture. Frank Gehry, arguably, has brought the architectural profession to a whole new level of understanding of itself. For this great architect, along with his collaborator Robert Wilson, to have the opportunity to share with us the creative process which will enable and result in this great memorial.
[Introducing Gehry and Wilson] Ferriero: ... Mr. Gehry's work reflects his concern that people live comfortably in the spaces he creates. His buildings address the contexts and culture of their sites, and the budgets of their clients. ...
Collaborating with Mr. Gehry is theater [garbled] Robert Wilson. Mr. Wilson has decisively shaped the look of the theater.
He [Wilson] became a leader of Manhattan's downtown art scene, and turned his attention to large scale opera. ...
[Ferriero asked how Gehry and Wilson collaborated]
Gehry: I was sort of the lead in the architectural thing. ... In order to do the competition, I read everything I could [to stomach?], and realized what a great man he [Eisenhower] was. I had no idea he was great. ... It seemed to me that I needed someone who understood how to present the man, how to present him. Somebody who is an actor in his own [garbled], and knows how to develop a character. ... We've known each other a long time. He's turned out to be ten times more than what I expected or what I thought I needed, and now I know I needed in developing this scene. It is, after all, as the great Bard said, "All the world's a stage." We are creating a scene, but it's a complicated one. It's in a complicated place at a complicated time. And so it's very delicate and hopefully subtle. Hopefully in the spirit of the man--the modesty that is all over the history of this man.
Wilson: [Explaining why he chose the image of Eisenhower as a little boy] ... [searching] Eisenhower's life trying to find one point that somehow balances the span of life. Say that, a man at A, could be alive this long [spreads hands], B could be living a life that's that long [adjusts distance between hands]. And could I find this A point, in this man's life, to balance this longer lifespan? ... The beautiful thing that kept coming back is -- this man who was a general, a public man, the history of the war, peace, the president -- that throughout his life you can see the little boy in him. And that's so touching. Baudelaire said, "Genius is childhood recovered at will." ... So that became this A point.
Wilson: ... Part of the American myth is that it's simple as apple pie. Jackson Pollock painted with house paint. Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin. So this idea, the barefoot boy from Kansas ...
Gehry: And it worked with the site. When we started out, we have a bunch of complicated images. We wanted to build a tapestry. Uh, we did a lot of research in jacquard and Chuck Close is working with tapestries, and it was logical that it could be built with metal fibers. If it couldn't be done, we didn't have a Plan B. ...
And then when we realized we were 70 feet from the [U.S. Department of] Education building, and they didn't like the idea of looking into the back of a tapestry, that we had to make the tapestry transparent, which is very hard to do. You put the jacquard loom -- we managed to do it, but it lost its art and purpose and became more of a thing. And the Fine Arts Commission, one of the commissioners mentioned -- he thought we ought to stay away from making a billboard, which we all agreed. We wanted to have an artist do it, but if you ask an artist to do a tapestry like that like Chuck Close, he would select imagery, so we were stuck. We couldn't find an artist that would do it, and, lo and behold, there's a Polish fellow, an artist from Poland, that is kind of an all-purpose handyman. He's worked for [garbled]. He does construction work. But whenever I've had a problem of how to put something strange together, he always comes to the fore. And he kept saying to me, "Let me try it. Let me try it." And I said "okay," so then he made this [points to mock-up of section of the tapestry]. It's gotten much better -- this was the first try. And we studied Albrecht Dürer's drawings, and developed a language of strokes from the Dürer, and applied it to the photograph we had of Abilene [Kansas]. ...
[Showing photo of early design at the site.] We were thinking of visitors driving by. This is kind of like a theater. And maybe eventually you might find places to sit on the back of the aerospace [sic, Smithsonian's National Air & Space] museum, which is not used at all. It's a beautiful terrace that overlooks this thing. ...
And we made it to hold out the tapestry, and the engineers told me I needed a 10-foot round column to do it. So I decided at that point to make them in stone. And when we did that, it sort of clicked into Washington. I don't see it as a postmodern thing as much as a -- you know, those columns are -- I think they're bigger than the ones in the [Pension Building, site of National Building Museum] -- what do you call that building there?
In this [early] tapestry, we had VE Day -- so we covered that. We had Eisenhower in the cabinet. We had Eisenhower fixing a fence post. And we had talked about making reliefs, stone reliefs. I was hoping they would get as good as the [ancient] Greek Phidias sculptures. So that's the dream. ...
As we proceeded, we pulled in the tapestry quite a bit on each corner, so that you can see the Education building from Independence Avenue. ...
They sort of create the space because the [surrounding] buildings are very different designs. Some people don't like 'em. ...
When Bob came in with the Abilene picture, we realized this is an incredible fortuitous image from a functional standpoint since it allowed the most open space in the sky, so we could make it transparent ... It wasn't bombastic, overpowering, beating-your-chest Eisenhower. To bring in this Midwestern theme. ... I don't think there's a Midwest representation of the Midwest, and there's a lot of people out there.
[Referring to landscaping] In the summer, there are trees with leaves. Unfortunately, we can't put leaves on the tapestry. So it becomes a big park, a garden, where people can come and relax. They're not being pummeled with information. It's very subtle. And the tapestry turned out to be a lot more transparent than we thought. ...
[Referring to the "cartway" between the landscaped trees] There's one like it at Princeton. [Showing the photo from Princeton] I think this is called "Einstein Walk."
The final image [for the tapestry] -- Bob and I will go to Abilene and take a picture. ...
[Referring to the man making the tapestry] We've pushed him hard to make it look like a tree, but I think we pushed him too hard. We want it to be a little bit more artful. ...
It's going to be very subtle, it's going to be very quiet. It's going to say "Abilene," but it's not going to hit you over the head with it. ...
Wilson: You know I work in the theater, and it's a little bit like a theatrical scrim, which I've used in ... various productions. So this gauze, this tapestry, transparent tapestry. ...
[Referring to the image of the barefoot boy] It's probably not something that is the big headline of what you know of Eisenhower. ... But it was the one point we kept coming back to, the scene for me.
I made a work early in my career called "The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud," and reading about Freud, I read something that when he was 68, his grandson Heinerlie died. He said something within him passed away forever. And he said years later in one anecdote, he said, "I never overcame the death of Heinerlie, this eight-year-old boy." And it was in that year that Freud developed cancer. And it was just this little thing that kept coming back in my mind. Freud is so much discussed in history books, but he seemed to be really that Point A to balance with his life and times. And so this man who was a giant in so many ways was just a simple boy. I think it's a poetic way of looking at things. ... The barefoot boy in Kansas.
Gehry: [Referring to the statue of Eisenhower as a barefoot boy.] And it will be life-size, I think, it'll be sitting on a wall. ... And now we've got to figure out how to talk about him as a president and a soldier. And we're trying not to make it an episodic thing like the [recent Franklin D.] Roosevelt Memorial. ...
Gehry: [Responding to Ferrieo's question about what it was like to work with the federal government.] I loved the first meeting -- a lady brought in a little time clock. And it went off in an hour and she just got up and left. [big audience laughter]
[Chairman of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission] Rocco [Siciliano] himself was Eisenhower's chief of staff when Eisenhower was president [ed.: not true]. At least he has the sense of what he did and what's going on. I think mostly we've had good vibes from people. ... We're not trying to jam something down people's throats. We're trying to make something that's lasting, that's in essence, that represents this man's character. And I think we're honing in on getting there. ...
We will tell those two stories [Ike as president and soldier], we will, we're not going to ignore them. ...
Wilson: The strength is -- there's nothing more beautiful than an empty room or an empty space. They say the best architecture is -- forgive me Frank --i s no architecture. [ed.: this is a reference to a line from Aaron Betsky, the "architectural queer theorist"] That's the beauty of this idea, that it's space. It's so much needed. It's not another blockbuster building. ...
Ferriero: Frank, you've described this project as an emotional portrait of Dwight Eisenhower using the power of architecture, landscape and visual art to tell this man's story, to represent his strength and values, and at the same time paying attention to the balance between respectful and boring.
Gehry: Well, it's hard to comment on that. I think expressing the man is not boring, and if we do it right, it will resonate.
Wilson: The history books record him as a certain way, but this is something that I think will be a backdrop in multiple ways.
Gehry: I think there are people that think this is too big a space for Eisenhower. He wasn't as important as that space is. Why does he have a space that's bigger than somebody else? He doesn't. He's gonna have a little plank, for a little boy. This is an image that's going to contextualize and modify the location so it can accept that little frontispiece and not get lost in the hubbub of the city. I think it's going to be very modest.
Ferriero: So this is still very much a work in progress.
Gehry: We're getting close. And, you know, we have budget and technical stuff. ...
We're pretty close to our budget. The maintenance part of this is very carefully thought out. We're doing tests on the tapestry to ensure it will last at least 200 years. But you see it's pretty simple, you can just spray and clean it. I don't think things are going to grow in it.
[Referring to tests of the tapestry] Tomas [the tapestry artist] made a face of Eisenhower's eyes in that material, and it's recognizable. So if we wanted to put figures -- we don't -- but if we wanted to, if it became an issue, we're able to do it.
Ferriero: ... Is there a particular memorial that you think is good?
Wilson: Absolutely, and Washington.
Gehry: And, uh, Maya Lin. [ed.: note he doesn't say the name of the memorial or what it's supposed to memorialize]
Wilson: Beautiful, what Maya did.
Gehry: She was my student, so I'm kind of biased. [audience laughter]
First Questioner: So you may not remember this, but about three or four years ago in The Washington Post, there was this incredible photo of Robert Todd Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial when it first opened. And I would give serious money to find out what he was thinking. And so my question is: What kind of role did the descendants play in your analysis? His descendants: the grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Gehry: Uh, well, we've met with them. [audience laughter] Uh, they've been cordial, they have their opinions -- uh, they're strong. Uh, we've listened to them. I think that when we say we're finished, they'll realize that it wasn't [garbled]. Right now, the idea is the question about we have any stone dealing with the president and the military. So, everybody involved is questioning how you're gonna do that. And I'm questioning it myself. But we're getting there.
[NCAS Secretary Justin] Shubow: Mr. Gehry, previously you've been quite forthright publicly about your design philosophy. If I may quote something you've previously said: "Life is chaotic, dangerous, and surprising. Buildings should reflect that."
Likewise, while speaking of your thoughts for the Stata Center, you said, "I think of this in terms of controlled chaos. I always relate it to democracy. Democracy is pluralism, the collision of ideas. Our cities are built on a collision of thought. Look out there. There is a building by I. M. Pei, there is a bridge, there is that huge hunk in the distance. If it wasn't for democracy it would all look like one thing."
Given your stated predilection for chaos and danger in architecture, is this project a continuation of that or is it a departure? And, moreover, did you explain your design philosophy while applying to the Commission?
[Laughter and a tiny bit of applause.]
Gehry: You know, it's like you take -- I got a nose hair, if you wanna -- I don't remember the context of that talk. I was probably talking to a bunch of students, who are not, who are afraid, and I usually try to say that, um, the chaos of the world is a fact, and recently it's gotten to be more of a fact. And, um, how do you build what's in that. If I'm building a city in the 19th century or the 18th century, I have a format. The cities of Europe have six- or seven-storey buildings lining the streets. They're all similar. They're, they're -- they create a quite beautiful city.
In the democratic world, which I don't want to give up, believe me, everybody has their right to build what they want so long as they live within the zoning codes.
Shubow: Does that include Washington, D.C., and the McMillan Plan? Anything you want, no matter what if it's a big hunk?
Shubow: Does it matter that there's stylistic harmony within Washington, D.C.?
Gehry: Yeah, I know. [pause] I'm not talking about Washington.
Shubow: This is where the memorial is going to be built.
Gehry: [Pointing to the photo projection of his latest design] You think this is chaotic?
Shubow: Uh, well, I happen to think that the giant screen represents winter, permanent winter -- trees without leaves. It represents death and nihilism -- in the same way that I see your black t-shirt [referring to his attire], much beloved by downtown hipsters and nihilists everywhere -- and it's a total rejection of the past and tradition and, honestly, of everything that Eisenhower himself stood for.
[Applause and nervous laughter; Gehry said nothing.]
[NCAS Chairman Eric] Wind: Hi, uh, Mr. Gehry, thanks for coming to speak with us. [big laughter]
I just wanted -- a certain analogy popped into my head as we were while watching this, watching your explanation. I don't know if you're familiar with the story "The Emperor Has No Clothes," but they're weaving together invisible clothes and a little barefoot boy says, "The emperor has no clothes." And I just think, you said it's not very postmodern what you're doing, but it seems to strike me as very postmodern.
I don't know if you're familiar with C.S. Lewis and the Space Trilogy. In that age, they have metal trees -- they no longer have real trees -- metal birds, and in a place where there is a huge amount of space you can use real trees and you do use real trees, why do you think of making metal trees and doing something that seems so ridiculous? It seems to me like the emperor has no clothes. How is this a memorial reflecting his great deeds and his great works? I think of, as you said, the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, things that are so striking in that they honor these great men, and this just seems to me --
Gehry: Do you have more?
Wind: Uh, that's it.
Gehry: Um, the Lincoln Memorial is in the form of a Greek Temple. What's that got to do with Lincoln?
Wind: I think my mic -- okay, it's on. The deeper symbolism, as they said, in the hearts of our nation -- these principles, which are classical, last forever.
Gehry: Okay, Okay. So in our nation, in our history, world history, the tapestries have been used to tell stories throughout the world. Raphael--
Wind: I find you saying this is a tapestry a little bit ridiculous. It's just metal. I don't call that a tapestry. But I guess it's [recording hard to make out]. Thank you.