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.