Through his collaboration with the theater artist Robert Wilson, Gehry has focused on Eisenhower’s youth in Kansas as an organizing motif, a way of stressing his modesty, his humble origins and the social mobility that was once a cherished part of American culture. Borrowing Eisenhower’s own language (from a speech the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces gave at his postwar homecoming to Abilene), Gehry is emphasizing the “dreams of a barefoot boy,” in his depiction of the military and political leader.
Tapestries have a long history of serving hagiographic and political purposes. They weren’t just sumptuous decorative objects, but carried images that celebrated military, political and dynastic accomplishment (as with the famous Pastrana Tapestries now on view at the National Gallery of Art). Charles the Bold brought tapestries with him to the 1477 Battle of Nancy to decorate his war tent, and when he lost the battle these tapestries became booty for victorious Swiss troops. But while their military bona fides are beyond dispute, they are also made of cloth, and were essentially indoor and domestic objects. Gehry’s vision of an outdoor tapestry not only raises unique design challenges — how to “weave” it and preserve it over time — it subverts the idea of indoors and out, domestic and public, eliding boundaries between feminine and masculine space.
The transparency of the metal material, its suppleness and flexibility, stand in contrast to the permanence and solidity of the standard materials of memorial architecture, stone, concrete and earth. Designers looking for alternatives to the “hardscape” of traditional memorials have often turned to water, as landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson did in her memorial to Princess Diana in Hyde Park, London. But fountains are notoriously fickle, and they have long been used as accents to grand and traditional memorials. Gehry has found a material that shares some of the ephemeral nature of water, but will last through the ages, and is entirely free of cliche.
Beyond the heroic ideal
As the design has progressed, it has become more aligned with the values of contemporary theater. Whether that represents Wilson’s influence or simply the evolution of Gehry’s thinking doesn’t matter. The memorial now strives for two basic theatrical virtues: open-endedness or permeability, and psychological distillation. Both values are essentially innovations in the language of memorial design, which has traditionally set one particular understanding — this man was great, this war was just, these people were victims — beyond debate, etching it literally in stone. By focusing on the young Eisenhower, the memorial allows visitors more space to form their own assessment of Eisenhower’s legacy.
It also finesses a plaguing problem of most memorials: Few great men are absolutely great, without flaws and failings. Although Eisenhower is remembered more fondly now than he was in the 1960s and ’70s, there are still debates about his strategy in the Second World War (was he too cautious, thus prolonging the war?), his role during the McCarthy witch hunts (why didn’t he more publicly confront the congressional Torquemadas?) and his role in foreign adventures (bloody CIA interventions and the doomed Bay of Pigs invasion). The young Eisenhower is both innocent of and yet pregnant with whatever failings history ultimately attributes to his career.