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.