Critics of Gehry-designed Eisenhower monument step up opposition

(Scott Collison/ Courtesy of the National Civic Art Society ) - Scott Collison's design for the Eisenhower Memorial.

(Scott Collison/ Courtesy of the National Civic Art Society ) - Scott Collison's design for the Eisenhower Memorial.

With plans for the new Frank Gehry-designed monument to Dwight D. Eisenhower in a temporary holding pattern, members and supporters of the National Civic Art Society met on Capitol Hill on Tuesday evening to drum up yet more opposition to the current design. The NCAS, along with Eisenhower’s granddaughters, has been leading opposition to the Gehry design, and their collective efforts have led to a delay in the approvals process for the memorial to the nation’s 34th president (a design review meeting tentatively scheduled for this month was scrapped after politicians on Capitol Hill got involved in the controversy).

Although they are in alignment about their view of Gehry’s work, the Eisenhowers and the NCAS are pursuing very different agendas, which makes them curious allies. Led by Susan Eisenhower, the family has taken a kitchen-sink approach to attacking Gehry, suggesting his plan for a parklike setting enclosed by metal tapestries will recall the aesthetics of totalitarianism, that the tapestries are too costly and not likely to hold up well to time and the weather, that Gehry’s program for the memorial’s symbolism doesn’t do justice to their grandfather and that the whole project isn’t “sustainable.” The NCAS, by contrast, is focused on Gehry, and an abiding hatred of everything its members think he stands for.

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At the Kirby Center, an outpost of the conservative Hillsdale College near Union Station, the NCAS displayed well-crafted drawings of alternative proposals for the Eisenhower Memorial, solicited through an informal competition held last summer. The Kirby Center, devoted to “the principles and ideas that have made America free and prosperous,” offers internships and hosts town hall meetings, symposia and lectures, including recent talks devoted to “Obamacare’s Assault on Religious Liberty” and “Rules for Radicals: What Constitutional Conservatives Should Know About Saul Alinsky.” The reception and display of drawings (up through September) seems to align the conservative aesthetic values of the NCAS with the broader, partisan conservatism of Hillsdale.

The meticulous architectural renderings were arrayed in a classically designed room dominated by a large, figurative painting of the signing of the U.S. Constitution. On display were the prize winners in the competition, co-sponsored by the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the Institute for Classical Architecture & Art: Daniel Cook’s triumphal arch with accompanying monumental columns (First Prize); Sylvester Bartos and Whitley Esteban’s triumphal arch with flanking colonnade (Second Prize); Rob Firmin and Bruce Wolfe’s curving colonnade with flanking peristyles (tied for Third Place) and Francisco Ruiz’s temple-like structure set in a mixed-use urban redevelopment project (tied for Third Place).

Other entrants continued the basic themes of classical architecture, with variations on the Lincoln Memorial, extended temple structures dominated by enormous statues, a gigantic equestrian figure, yet more arches, tempiettos, colonnades and victory columns. It was a grand historical hodge-podge, with elements borrowed from the great chapters of imperial architecture over the past 2,500 years, mostly Roman and Napoleonic with a dash of 20th-century authoritarian bleakness. Cook’s winning design keeps the basic profile of the Arch of Titus in Rome, with a slightly reduced cap on top. But the modesty of the lower profile is undone by the enormous, far-larger-than-life-size statues of Eisenhower placed between the Corinthian columns on either side. C.J. Howard’s vision of a plaza with pentagon-shaped central element includes a “sculptural fountain of a D-Day amphibious vehicle” off to one side. The idea of a large vehicle of war retooled as a fountain reminds one immediately of Napoleon’s plans for a giant elephant fountain (a fearsome ancient war machine) on the Place de la Bastille (a plaster mock-up was unveiled in 1813 but was so dilapidated that it was torn down in 1846).

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.

The NCAS complained about the competition whereby Gehry was chosen, a process overseen by and according to the rules of the General Services Administration’s Design Excellence program. The thrust of the NCAS’s criticism is that the competition solicited credentials from architectural firms first, then asked for designs from qualified firms, rather than holding an “open” competition that allowed anyone to enter. But the designs on display demonstrate the wisdom of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission’s decision to use a process that focused on professional expertise rather than a cattle call of ideas. Too many of the proposals simply don’t acknowledge the serious design constraints and challenges of the site. They are exercises in drawing, prettified etudes in classical imagery with lovely washes of watercolor.

But designing a particular memorial, to a particular man, in a particular spot, is a technical as well as aesthetic challenge, and none of the drawings on display suggest anything like Gehry’s technical accomplishment. Gehry’s decision to reinvent rather than regurgitate classical memorial elements also seems much more sensible and paradoxically safe in view of the myriad and dissonant unwanted historical allusions thrown off by the classical stew on display at the NCAS exhibition, allusions to Albert Speer, the New Deal, and even Victoriana that all seem discordant ways to memorialize Eisenhower. Gehry is channeling classical architecture in a much more fundamental way than the parroting of classical architecture on display at the Kirby Center.

If the NCAS wants to challenge Gehry, who has developed a simple, elegant, robust idea that could be a transformational gesture in the evolution of memorial design, it will have to do more than go to the drawing board. It will have to grow up, set aside the strident animus against architects such as Gehry, and take the realities of the Eisenhower Memorial more seriously. It should study serious architecture seriously, starting with the designs proposed by Frank Gehry.

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