If authors got paid for their books in proportion to how good they are, Kirk Savage’s “Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape” would make him a rich man. The book, which came out in 2009, is the most comprehensive and supple analysis I’ve ever read of why the memorials and monuments of Washington look the way they do. Savage, who teaches at the University of Pittsburgh, is a monument optimist. Even as he charts the inevitable controversy and internecine politics that have accompanied the creation of almost every monument in the District, he usually sees that process as positive, as fundamentally democratic. It’s essential reading for anyone who wants to weigh in on the ongoing furor about the Frank Gehry design for a new memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower, which may have hit crisis point in recent weeks.
It turns out that he also maintains a blog and his most recent post takes up ideas broached in David Brooks’ New York Times column about the Eisenhower Memorial. If Brooks’ grumbling about the lack of proper respect for authority sounded familiar when you read it this week, it’s not just because the columnist was rehashing familiar themes in the conservative critique of American society. Savage argues that Brooks was also channeling Thomas Carlyle, who articulated a skeptical conservative worldview with a curmudgeonly vigor and eloquence generally lacking in punditry today.
Savage points out something lost in most conversations about authority (and most conversations about memorials, too): That if authority is respectable, people generally respect it. It’s debased authority, irresponsible authority, arrogant authority that puts authority figures in bad odor. And so, too, people generally want to remember and honor great men and women through memorials . . . if the memorials are well designed and do justice to their subjects.
I happen to believe that Frank Gehry’s memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower is one of the few truly innovative memorial designs of the last half century, and that it isn’t just a good piece of architecture, but an appropriate way to pay homage to the 34th President. If we look back on the debate about it 10 or 20 years hence, I think people will wonder: How did a debate about a memorial to Eisenhower turn into a general cultural trashing of Frank Gehry, the greatest American architect of the last half century? I hope that these thoughts will occur to people sitting in a public garden, surrounded by luminous metal tapestries representing Eisenhower’s boyhood home of Abilene, Kan., in a memorial landscape that is universally acknowledged as one of the best places of respite from the sun-baked, rigidly ceremonial expanse of the National Mall.