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.