And Thursday, he received pointed queries from members of the National Capital Planning Commission, one of the oversight groups that must approve Gehry’s vision before it can be built. Asked about Gehry’s design, three of the former president’s granddaughters issued a statement expressing concern about the “concept for the memorial, as well as the scope and scale of it.”
The controversy, both in the Eisenhower family and in the public, comes as Gehry’s concept for a memorial to the 34th president has been focused on what he calls “the barefoot boy” from Kansas.
Taken from a speech given by Eisenhower after he returned from the Second World War to his home town of Abilene, the barefoot boy image stresses Eisenhower’s simple roots and prevailing modesty.
To realize that visually, Gehry designed the memorial as a set of woven metal tapestries hung from large stone pillars that includes a wintry scene of the Kansas landscape. As Gehry has worked in collaboration with avant-garde theater artist Robert Wilson and focused on the theme of humility, the design for the memorial has emerged as more radical, innovative and unsettling than it seemed when preliminary models and renderings were first shown in March 2010.
Signed by Eisenhower granddaughters Anne, Susan and Mary Jean Eisenhower, their statement expressed gratitude to Congress and the White House for their support of the memorial but called for a timeout in the approval process. “We feel that now is the time to get these elements right — before any final design approvals are given and before any ground is broken.”
The Eisenhowers’ statement will renew long-standing debates — which resurfaced during the design and construction of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial — about what role, if any, family members should have in determining the country’s memorial legacy.
Daniel J. Feil, executive architect for the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, said that his organization would defer comment on the Eisenhower sisters’ statement but that David Eisenhower, the brother of Anne, Susan and Mary Jean, is a commission member and supports the design. David Eisenhower could not be reached for comment.
Gehry and Wilson are trying to break with centuries of tradition in the aesthetics of memorialization. The new memorial is conceived as a theatrical space in a parklike setting. The tapestry, which some have compared to a theater scrim, stands in stark contrast to the classical tradition of marble arches, pillars and other Greek and Roman derivatives. It is meant to be diaphanous and poetic, rather than solid and substantial.
The designers are also mulling plans for a statue representing the former president, but not in his role as chief executive or supreme commander of the Allied Forces, which liberated Europe from Nazi domination in World War II.