Over the past decade, with the opening of the World War II Memorial in 2004 and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial late this summer, it seemed as if a long tradition of civic architecture had finally reached a sad and vitiated end. The giant war memorial that ate up acres of the Mall hearkened back to the aesthetics of the very countries the United States defeated, an exercise in regurgitated totalitarian grandeur. The language of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial was more contemporary but caught up in the same design quandary that has bedevilled architects for almost three decades since the opening of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982. Uncertain whether to embrace abstraction and conceptualism, or the traditional language of marble statues and heroic flourishes, the designers of the MLK Memorial tried a little of both, and failed like so many before them, producing a bland, often silly, and generally inert design calculated to offend no one.
But history isn’t over, and there are ideas left with which to reinvigorate the tradition of memorial architecture. While it might have seemed an odd mismatch to chose Frank Gehry , an architect of flamboyant gestures, to design a memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower, a military leader and president hallowed for his common touch, simplicity and humility, it was the right choice, and a daring one. Gehry’s design, which uses large-scale metal tapestries to memorialize the 34th president, is the first serious innovation in the history of memorial design since the bold and abstract geometries of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial (now gravely threatened by a bizarre plan to build an unnecessary visitors center nearby).