Despite criticism that the Gehry designs are too grand — though Gehry didn’t choose the site or the scale — many of the proposals that emerged from the NCAS are enormous. A design by Scott Collison for a 1930s-era style temple, with a stripped-down classicism reminiscent of the office buildings created for the New Deal enlargement of the federal government, won special commendation from the NCAS chairman, but it towers above an already gargantuan statue of Eisenhower and is immediately evocative of the internationally popular style deployed in totalitarian and free countries alike after the destabilization of the Depression. It has the slightly desperate, overbearing nostalgia of an architect trying to wring some last vestigial power out of the language of classical architecture.
The best of the ideas responded to the actual site, rather than simply resurrect classical design motifs. Francisco Ruiz’s proposal features a mixed-used redevelopment of what is an arid and unlovable square. Ruiz’s drawings look rather ridiculous, as if someone has removed some of the historicist public buildings from the Walt Disney Co.’s Celebration, Fla., development and settled them willy-nilly into monumental Washington. But his response — how can this site be properly urban? — is at least a move in the right direction. Nir Buras’s simple obelisk says nothing in particular, but the density of forest that surrounds it is an interesting (though impractical) response to the ugly architecture on all sides.
During remarks made during the reception, NCAS leaders celebrated the relatively small budget on which they conducted their competition, and took shots at Gehry and leaders of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission. Howard Segermark, chairman emeritus of the NCAS, seemed to refer accidentally to the Eisenhower Memorial Commission executive director Brig. Gen. Carl W. Reddel as “Col. Reddel,” to laughs from the audience, then corrected himself, saying that Reddel was a colonel “until the day he retired.”
That was unfortunate, as were suggestions that Gehry doesn’t care about beauty or the highest ideals of humanity. The NCAS, a small nonprofit seeking a larger profile in the architectural conversation, seems too often to be obsessively anti-Gehry, rather than proactively for anything substantial. It didn’t even have the courtesy to represent Gehry’s design with up-to-date images, choosing instead photographs of long-since abandoned prototypes that show a very different, heavy and ungainly version of the proposed tapestries.
And while it is proud of the low, $2,000 cost of its competition, it makes no sense to compare it to the process whereby Gehry was chosen. Many, if not most of the designs on display, simply ignore the design realities of building a memorial on the rectangular site just south of Independence Avenue between Fourth and Sixth Streets SW. Many of the drawings, such as the Firmin and Wolfe colonnade, are presented with no reference to architectural context, including the rather dispiriting Department of Education building which dominates the square. Others simply ignored the challenge of keeping the Maryland Avenue corridor open, which Gehry’s design subtly addresses. The Chairman’s preferred plan, the gargantuan ’30s-era temple, backs up so closely to the Department of Education building that it would surely block views and light — one of the challenges that Gehry addressed adroitly in the development of his design.