Architect Frank Gehry’s Eisenhower Memorial design: The plan and what went wrong

They met in the offices of Sen. Daniel Inouye, in one of the ornate rooms of the old Capitol that are among the perks of office for the president pro tempore. Members of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission sat around a heavy round table, while their staffers crowded in from the sides. A March fire blazed in the fireplace.

They were looking for a way forward. More than a decade after the commission had been formed to create a memorial to the 34th president of the United States and the man who led Allied troops to victory in Europe in World War II, the Eisenhower Memorial was suddenly in the news, attacked from all sides, including by the grandchildren of the man it was meant to honor.

Architect Frank Gehry, who had been chosen to design the memorial in 2009, had become a lightning rod, mocked by conservative columnists as a self-aggrandizing architectural superstar and accused by others of not understanding the legacy of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Gehry’s design, with innovative metal tapestries depicting Eisenhower’s boyhood home of Abilene, Kan., had been compared to communist pageantry, billboards and, most stinging of all, the fences that surrounded the death camps of Adolf Hitler.

So, members of the commission met to decide what they thought they had decided in 2009: whether they stood behind Gehry and his vision, or whether plans for the Eisenhower Memorial would fall prey to the delays and acrimony that have afflicted the creation of so many Washington landmarks in the past century. Those who were there agree that it was the words of Inouye, an 87-year-old senator who is a veteran not only of the Second World War, but of the Monument Wars, that decided the day.

***

To some, it seemed an unlikely fit, Gehry designing a memorial honoring Ike, but that impression was always based on two misunderstandings. There is a vulgar idea that Gehry is all about flamboyant buildings, radical structures acclaimed by critics but derided by common sense. The popular perception of Ike is no more accurate. Over the decades, historians’ admiration for Eisenhower has grown with mostly bipartisan fervor, though it has yet to supplant the more widely held view of the man: a stellar general with the common touch, and a president who let the 1950s slide by with dull, genial detachment.

Gehry, however, isn’t driven just by inspiration. His office in Los Angeles is a laboratory for technical innovation. People who have worked closely with him describe an architect who listens and responds, a relationship between client and creator that can reach almost psychoanalytic levels of engagement. The architect himself stresses his punctiliousness about budgets and deadlines.

And Eisenhower was no mere grandpa figure, but a deeply engaged and sometimes ruthless politician whose legacy includes the interstate highway system, advances in civil rights and a long list of potential Cold War-era disasters, including war quietly, cautiously and expertly averted.

It’s not clear if Gehry was interested first in the challenge of building a memorial or in the legacy of Ike. But in 2008, soon after a member of his office brought to his attention a competition being held in Washington for a major new memorial, Gehry began to fall into deep admiration of Eisenhower.

“That meant getting everything I could find on Eisenhower, reading as much as I could,” says Gehry, sitting a few weeks ago in the conference room of his firm’s office. There is a large-scale model of the memorial, and on the wall are hundreds of black-and-white photographs of the Kansas landscape, where Eisenhower grew up.

Though born in Canada, Gehry moved with his family to the United States in 1947 and served two years in the Army in the mid-1950s. In Barbara Isenberg’s “Conversations With Frank Gehry,” he remembers being called “Kikey,” an anti-Semitic slur, by a “Neanderthal-looking” sergeant, but he doesn’t remember his service with bitterness. Part of his attraction to Ike had to do with the Army connection. But it was Ike’s presidential legacy that fired Gehry’s imagination, as well as Eisenhower’s legendary humility.

One story, in particular, touches Gehry deeply. When Eisenhower returned from war-ravaged Europe, he gave a speech in Abilene on June 22, 1945. He had just defeated Hitler and marshaled one of the greatest and bloodiest military campaigns in history. But when he spoke to the crowd gathered to celebrate the hometown hero, Eisenhower said: “Because no man is really a man who has lost out of himself all of the boy, I want to speak first of the dreams of a barefoot boy.”

Boys dream of many things, Eisenhower said, but coming home is the best dream of all. The speech deflected attention from the conquering hero, and turned it instead to the soldiers he led and the sacrifices made by so many for so long. It also spoke to Gehry, who had spent some of his youth in a town as remote as Abilene and later drove a delivery truck in Los Angeles before rising to the top of an extremely competitive profession.

“He doesn’t come home beating his chest,” Gehry says. “The modesty thing is something I could relate to. I’m Canadian; we’re raised that way, laid-back.”

Since 1962, when he opened his own office and turned his back on a successful career designing office buildings, shopping centers and housing, Gehry had built a reputation as one of the world’s foremost architectural innovators. In 1997, he finished the building that made him a household name, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Clad in billowing titanium, the museum rose up in torquing and swirling forms, transforming its drab city, and transforming architectural history.

Gehry never liked the way architectural competitions structure the relationship with clients, and after the success of Bilbao, he was mostly able to forgo them. But in 2008, even the top architecture firms in the world were feeling the recession, which meant Gehry’s office had time to focus on projects it might not ordinarily consider. For the first time in years, he decided to enter an architectural competition. His firm survived a rigorous process, run by the General Services Administration. He won, and in March 2010, he unveiled a design that won the memorial commission’s unanimous approval.

It was a rectangular plaza defined by tall masonry columns, from which were suspended metal tapestries depicting scenes from Eisenhower’s life. In the center were sculptural elements, and all around trees and grass created a parklike setting. From that first glimpse of the preliminary design model, unveiled on Capitol Hill, it was clear that Gehry had finessed the greatest challenge of the memorial: the bifurcated site. It was a four-acre parcel divided into two triangles by the intersection of Maryland and Independence avenues SW.

His response was brilliant: The columns and the tapestry unified the plaza and created an atmospheric sense of enclosure that muted the dispiriting effect of nearby office buildings. Although she has become sharply critical of Gehry’s design, at the time even Anne Eisenhower, granddaughter of the president, was impressed: “I thought nothing could be done with it,” she said.

But Gehry had also introduced potentially in­trac­table design challenges. The tapestry was something entirely new, at least for a memorial. Although tapestries have a long history as a narrative form celebrating kingly and military accomplishment, could a metal tapestry be woven that would look good, fit the budget and survive the elements? Over the months to come, those close to the process would see a side of Gehry often obscured by what he calls the “many predigested characterizations” of his supposedly willful brand of genius.

***

For architect and critic Witold Rybczynski, who sits on the Commission of Fine Arts, Gehry negotiated the complicated design review process for his preliminary design with admirable flexibility. The CFA is one of two main review groups that must sign off on a major addition to the city’s monumental core. It is the intellectual group that considers history, aesthetics, urban context and whether a new addition does credit to the nation’s capital.

The other group, the National Capital Planning Commission, deals more with bureaucratic and political hurdles. The Eisenhower Memorial still faces a pivotal review by the NCPC, perhaps later this summer. But it has already won a unanimous preliminary endorsement from the CFA, mainly because Gehry adapted to suggestions.

“With the best architects, what you see is a real evolution,” Rybczynski says. “That’s what you see with Gehry. You say things, he listens, and the next time you see it, it’s moved somewhere.”

For the CFA, the big unknown was the fabrication of the metal tapestries. It was also the big unknown for Gehry, who says he told the commission early on that they were so essential that if he couldn’t find a way to create them, he “had no plan B.” It was an attempt at full disclosure: With innovation comes risk.

“We went around the world,” says John Bowers, Gehry’s lead partner on the project. They interviewed fabricators in Rhode Island and Japan; studied the old Jacquard looms, which mechanized the production of complex textiles in the 19th century; and compiled volumes of technical data on mock-ups, many of which still hang in Gehry’s cavernous offices.

Without the tapestries, it wasn’t clear that any kind of memorial would ever fit into the parcel, now being called “Eisenhower Square.” Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Carl W. Reddel, executive director of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, says the space just south of the Mall was appealing because of its prominence and its proximity to buildings that have symbolic importance to Eisenhower’s legacy, including the National Air and Space Museum.

But “how do you create an identity for what looks like a parking lot with victory gardens on both sides?” asks Reddel. A Greek-style temple would have been dwarfed by, or dissonant with, the surrounding structures.

The tapestries created a high-wire act of experiment and design. The commission had committed to a bold new typology of memorial, and it had committed to Gehry. Could Gehry do it?

Skeptics got their answer in September when Gehry’s team unveiled 10-by-15-foot mock-ups on the memorial site.

Gehry had studied the great 17th-century Constantine tapestries that hang in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and was inspired by the contemporary experiments with tapestry by artist Chuck Close. One designer Gehry was working with had studied the woodcuts of the Renaissance master Albrecht Durer for technical inspiration and had particular success using welding over steel threads to create light, clear, crisp images of the Kansas landscape.

Members of the Commission of Fine Arts went away convinced Gehry had solved the major technical challenge. Dan Feil, executive architect for the memorial commission, was ecstatic.

“My first thought was, My God, he nailed it,” Feil says. “That was one of those incredible moments. It seemed so odd: There’s an image, but you can see through it.”

The transparency would help allay fears inside the Department of Education building that the memorial would block the view of the Mall. It also elevated the tapestries from seeming bluntly photographic to feeling artistic.

Gehry was relieved.

But he was so focused on how to make the tapestries he may not have seen the growing dissension about what the memorial would say about Ike. His office got pushback quickly from the Eisenhower family on the idea of depicting Eisenhower fixing a fence post on his farm. A photograph of jubilant people on V-E Day was rejected because it was too busy and dense, and because it placed too much emphasis on Ike’s military career.

But the GSA had made it clear from the beginning “that it was absolutely vital that we capture the president and the general,” says Meaghan Lloyd, Gehry’s chief of staff.

That duality — a general who won a resounding victory, and a president who often functioned as a “hidden hand” in his own administration — drove many of the decisions about design and content.

“Eisenhower had one of the great résumés in history,” says Alfred Geduldig, one of the memorial commission’s 12 members. Geduldig remembers that after he joined the commission, he went through a powerful awakening about Eisenhower. Like Gehry, he became convinced that Eisenhower has often been underestimated. “It’s very hard to build a memorial to somebody who has been modest, who worked through teams. And I think Gehry has done a marvelous job in capturing that.”

To refine the content of the memorial, Gehry made a typically unconventional decision. He turned to Robert Wilson, a highly respected avant-garde theater artist. Wilson, he believed, could winnow through the great mass of information and find the perfect, concentrated essence of Ike. Too many of Washington’s memorials, Gehry thought, give “too much information,” diluting their impact, or suffer from an overly episodic approach. What was needed was a powerful symbol that would define Eisenhower for visitors, young and old, many of whom would likely have no memory or knowledge of Eisenhower.

It was Wilson who would steer Gehry toward focusing on Eisenhower’s boyhood home of Abilene, and as the memorial progressed, the subject for the tapestries became more rural, more middle American, more about landscape than historical images. Eisenhower’s legacy would be displayed in stone and statuary in the middle of the memorial. As the two men bounced ideas back and forth, the idea of the “barefoot boy” became more and more appealing.

***

Washington got a chance to listen in on Gehry and Wilson’s ideas on Oct. 5, when they appeared for a public conversation about the memorial at the National Archives. They discussed the basic design, the tapestries and the inspiration they had taken from Eisenhower’s “barefoot boy” speech. And then they took questions from the audience, including several from a young man in a jacket and tie.

Justin Shubow, president of a little-known nonprofit group, the National Civic Art Society,read back to Gehry quotes from years earlier, in which the architect discussed the inherent chaos of democratic cities, the way a discordant but often exciting stylistic diversity emerged as the rigid power structures of the 19th century yielded to more freewheeling forms of democracy. Gehry often speaks metaphorically of chaos and danger as powerful aesthetic energies. But Shubow seemed to take Gehry literally, as if he thought the architect wanted to vandalize the sacred center of Washington.

“I probably was talking to a bunch of students … who were afraid,” Gehry responded. “The chaos of the world around us is a fact, and recently it has gotten to be more of a fact.” What matters, Gehry continued, is what you make of that chaos.

Shubow argued that the memorial “represents death and nihilism in the same way that I see your black T-shirt, much beloved by downtown hipsters and nihilists everywhere, and its total rejection of the past and tradition and honestly everything that Eisenhower himself stood for.”

The audience began to laugh nervously. Gehry, who had looked momentarily flustered, found his flinty side, smiled, then began to clap slowly. But there were more hostile questions, and another young man accused the architect of foisting “the emperor’s new clothes” on the city.

When Gehry and Wilson discussed the memorial that night, they were firmly committed to the tapestries, but the “barefoot boy” was an idea in progress.

In Gehry’s design method, there is a persistent, rigorous base, over which ideas are thrown out, elaborated, tweaked and often discarded. Hundreds of models fill his office, in some cases a dozen or more iterations of a high-rise in Manhattan or a hotel for Moscow. The “barefoot boy” was one of myriad ideas Gehry has considered for the memorial, which at various times has included a circular colonnade, a bridge across Maryland Avenue, conical forms at the plaza corners, and metal panels bent into the curvy shapes Gehry made famous in Bilbao.

There is a musical logic to Gehry’s design process, a ground base over which a profusion of variations are elaborated. He himself calls it “play.” For Gehry, the “barefoot boy” idea was one more iteration in the dance of ideas. But from that night on, critics of Gehry and the memorial latched on to it, and it became the battle line.

***

In the weeks and months after Gehry’s National Archives appearance, conservative writers and columnists would focus on the “barefoot boy” almost to the exclusion of all else, arguing that Gehry was diminishing Ike’s stature, ignoring his mature work.

People who were present at a New York meeting between Gehry and Wilson and the Eisenhower family don’t remember the president’s grandchildren expressing hostility to the idea at first, but in an e-mail, Anne Eisenhower says that the meeting began late and adjourned quickly to dinner, and that she and her brother, David, “did not have time to discuss the concept until later, and no one followed up with us.” The family quickly united against the concept and issued a statement in October opposing the tapestries and the “barefoot boy.” Grandson David Eisenhower resigned from the commission in December. Shubow issued a lengthy report, filled with innuendo and accusation, that became the basis for many of the subsequent attacks. And columnists and critics went to work.

In February, George Will branded the memorial “an exhibitionistic triumph of theory over function — more a monument to its creator, Frank Gehry, practitioner of architectural flamboyance, than to the most underrated president.” Ross Douthat in the New York Times said “the memorial sells the supreme allied commander’s greatness short.”

Gehry and the commission stopped talking about the “barefoot boy” and emphasized that the memorial would have substantial statues or other features depicting Ike’s legacy. Gehry says he took seriously the family’s concern that the focus on modesty might overwhelm the importance of Ike’s accomplishments.

“We amped it up,” Gehry says.

But the stage was set for a public showdown among the family, the National Civic Art Society, conservatives, architectural traditionalists and worried supporters of the memorial commission and Frank Gehry. At a congressional subcommittee hearing March 20, Susan Eisenhower invoked the names of Marx, Lenin and Engels, the specter of communist pageantry and the depravity of totalitarianism in a passionate attack on Gehry’s design. Citing the opinions of others, and mixing in her own dislike of Gehry’s work, she compared Gehry’s tapestries to billboards, the Iron Curtain and the fences that surrounded the Nazi death camps.

The last charge stung the most. Born Frank Owen Goldberg, to a mother whose family came from Lodz, Poland, Gehry knows well the devastation of Hitler’s Holocaust. He keeps a clipping of a 1947 newspaper article about the arrival in his native Canada of three relatives who survived. They were the lucky ones. Thirty-four others perished.

“That was the point at which I could have left the stage,” Gehry says.

It was also the moment it became clear the memorial commission had to do something.

Major additions to the core of Washington go through a double process of review. The first is bureaucratic, a long slog of design and review, hearings, environmental and historical preservation studies and finally, perhaps years later, approval from the CFA and the NCPC. Often, a memorial or monument will move quietly forward, then, at some point determined by an alchemy peculiar to Washington, enter the second stage of review, the political maelstrom. Very often it seems to the public that the idea for the memorial has arrived out of nowhere, almost fully formed and thrust upon them, even though it has been subject to months or years of open hearings and discussion.

Few people in Washington know that second process better than Sen. Inouye, who for years sat on the commission dedicated to building a memorial to Franklin D. Roosevelt.

People who were present for that March meeting remember that Inouye, who lost an arm in World War II, stood to address the room. He recounted how, earlier that day, he had visited many of the major memorials in Washington. It had taken decades to complete an FDR Memorial, he remembered, and even the most popular memorials, including the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall, were often born in controversy. But it was time, he argued, to rally behind the architect chosen to design the memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Those who were there remember it as a moving speech, a rare reminder of rhetoric in the old style. And it worked.

After months of controversy, a hammering in the media, and a contentious hearing that threatened to derail the designs, the commissioners issued a letter March 27.

“The members of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission are unanimous in their total and unqualified support for Frank Gehry,” they said, praising Gehry’s “vision for the memorial that will commemorate Dwight David Eisenhower in his roles as both a Supreme Allied Commander during World War II and 34th President of the United States of America.”

“I didn’t believe that they’d get the votes,” Gehry says.

Some have speculated that Susan Eisenhower’s use of Holocaust survivors in her testimony may have galvanized the commission. The family of the late wife of commission chairman Rocco Siciliano also fled the Holocaust.

Others believe it was largely Inouye’s intervention. He belongs not only to the greatest generation, but to a vanishing generation, and there is an urgency about finishing the Eisenhower Memorial.

In an e-mail, Susan Eisenhower says that her testimony also included praise of Gehry and that the commission’s statement articulated “their inflexibility” and “has hurt the process.”

In Los Angeles, people who know Gehry well say they had been worried about him. He was looking tired, stressed and perhaps depressed about the controversy. A few weeks after the letter, Gehry seemed excited about the memorial, about Washington and about Eisenhower.

“I do love Washington,” he says. “I am an American now. I served in the Army. My family, my kids, are all American. I took the kids, when they were little guys, 6 or 7, to see the memorials. They talk about it still.”

The Eisenhower family is still not pleased with the design and hasn’t taken up Gehry on an invitation to meet again. There’s talk of reviewing the process whereby Gehry was selected. Using a standard procedure, the GSA invited qualified firms to submit proposals, then winnowed 44 teams to four. Some critics, including Shubow and the NCAS, have argued that it should be a cattle call, whereby any architect can submit ideas.

Shubow remains passionately opposed, despite the commission’s letter.

“The commission is trying to ram this memorial through despite growing and near universal public opposition,” Shubow says. “Is this democracy?”

Gehry says he remains open to change, as he has been throughout the past three years. And in his office sits a model that is for now under wraps. A sneak peek suggests that the architect is working out new ideas for the center of the memorial, ideas that may surprise people. His latest variation feels very much like a sincere response to concerns about whether he has adequately represented Ike’s accomplishments.

“I knew about the controversy of other memorials,” Gehry says. “I didn’t expect less.”

For now, he intends to keep listening and refining. Eisenhower, he says, has become a personal passion. Not just the memorial, but the man.

“I’m not a quitter,” he says. “I really believe in this thing. I do like Ike. I’d wear that button proudly.”

Philip Kennicott is a Washington Post staff writer. To comment on this story, send e-mail to wpletters@washpost.com.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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