Gehry’s Eisenhower Memorial design needs to be rethought

April 6, 2012

The Eisenhower Memorial Commission recently decided to press forward with architect Frank Gehry’s Eisenhower Memorial design, despite dissatisfaction with the design expressed by many, including the Eisenhower family. The design concept is indeed problematic. But will the commission and Gehry be willing to address the memorial design’s fundamental problems?

Among the most strident complainers have been those condemning the aesthetic style of the memorial. Generally disliking architectural modernism, they strongly prefer a classically inspired memorial design. These critics argue that civic structures employing a modernist or avant garde vocabulary just don’t belong in the nation’s capital, where so many classically derivative government edifices, museums and monuments have been built. To them, selecting Gehry was a colossal error.

But the real problems of Gehry’s memorial design have nothing to do with aesthetic style or the use of modern rather than neoclassical architectural languages and materials. Modernism is not a style but rather encompasses many styles and strategies of design that share one attribute: They don’t replicate or allude literally to historic architecture and antique motifs.

Therefore, arguments over style are irrelevant. Instead what matters is creating an Eisenhower Memorial design, whatever the specific style, that is compelling and appropriate in representing Eisenhower’s accomplishments and contributions to the nation. Occupying a significant civic space, the memorial also must play a proper role as an element within the evolving urban fabric of America’s capital city.

Many have criticized how the architect was chosen, believing the commission should have conducted an open design competition similar to how Maya Lin was chosen to design the Vietnam Memorial, and how designs for other high-visibility, civic projects have resulted from open competitions.

Gehry, in fact, was chosen through a competition, but a limited competition managed by the General Services Administration through its Design Excellence program. The GSA protocol entailed first compiling a list of possible designers based on qualifications and proven talent. However, at this stage, no memorial design was proposed or considered. Subsequently the list was shortened, short-listed designers were interviewed and finalists were selected. Only then did the commission jury review preliminary concepts, leading to Gehry’s selection.

The GSA method for selecting designers often has produced excellent results, and it can save time and expense. But it also means that a project sponsor sees only a few ideas, whereas an open competition produces hundreds of ideas.

At this point, the Eisenhower Commission could suspend work on the Gehry scheme, hit the reset button and start over by sponsoring an open, national competition to search for a new design concept. But this could prove unfeasible economically and politically.

The commission could take another approach familiar to practicing architects and their clients: Ask the designer to come up with scheme B to correct the flaws of scheme A. Exploring alternative design concepts occurs often in the real world of design and construction. Initial project conditions and parameters can change during the design process. Perceptions and understanding of the nature of the project likewise can change as designs take shape.

We architects create, fall in love with and get emotionally invested in our design concepts. Modifying or abandoning them is painful, both for us and our clients. Yet a beloved concept can keep us from contemplating better concepts.

Gehry as well as the Eisenhower Commission are undoubtedly fond of the current memorial design. But having seen much of Gehry’s work here and abroad, I believe he is capable of reconceptualizing his scheme to address and correct the fundamental urban design and interpretive flaws.

The designated four-acre memorial site, along Independence Avenue SW and opposite the National Air and Space Museum, is currently an unattractive, underutilized open space. While an appropriate location for the memorial, this space, the size of four football fields, is far too large to be dedicated just to Eisenhower. Indeed, the site’s area, coupled with the large-scale urban and architectural context of surrounding federal buildings, invited design of an immodest, oversized memorial scheme.

During site selection, before Gehry was chosen, federal agencies erred. They should have adopted a dual strategy: call for revitalizing the site through creation of an urban park or square, akin to Bryant Park in New York City, Copley Square in Boston or Union Square in San Francisco; and authorize placing the Eisenhower Memorial in a segment of the reanimated four-acre park.

To remediate this original error, the Eisenhower Commission should ask Gehry’s team to rethink the concept, especially its questionable urban design attributes and the 80-foot high, 11-foot diameter columns and metal scrims depicting Kansas landscape imagery and framing the site. Building a quasi-fenced precinct makes no sense.

The narrative theme relating to Eisenhower’s boyhood, so visually dominant in the present design, also makes no sense. Gehry instead could craft a less grandiose yet visually powerful memorial composition situated within, rather than encompassing, an activated urban park. Such a memorial should meaningfully symbolize and commemorate what really matters: Ike’s exceptional achievements and role in shaping American history, not his Kansas roots.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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