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.