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.