An artist rendering of a section of the proposed memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower. (Associated Press)
March 16, 2012

Controversy has erupted over the memorial to President Dwight Eisenhower proposed by Frank Gehry for a site next to the Mall. The memorial’s large size and unconventional emphasis on Eisenhower as a “barefoot boy from Kansas” drew objections from the Eisenhower family, which in December called for it to be redesigned. A mounting public debate has since coalesced around familiar cultural positions. Supporters praise the plan as a memorial for the 21st century; critics charge that it disrespects its subject and context.

This increasingly contentious debate, however, has shifted attention away from the high-handed and undemocratic process that produced Mr. Gehry’s design. The Eisenhower Memorial Commission chose its architect from a short list of predictable names, disregarding a tradition of designing national memorials through open design competitions.

Such competitions have given us not only the Washington Monument, the White House and the Capitol, but also, more recently, all but one of the memorials erected on and around the Mall over the last 30 years. These include the Vietnam Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, the World War II Memorial and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. The 1982 Vietnam Memorial is probably the most influential American monument of the last half-century: It was designed by a college student and selected from more than a thousand entries.

The memorial commission squelched the possibility of a similarly democratic outcome when it used a bureaucratic procedure, rather than a public process, to find its architect. The designers of our federal courthouses and office buildings are chosen through the General Services Administration’s Design Excellence Program, which typically evaluates a few invited candidates on the basis of their qualifications and experience rather than their design proposals. This means that design work doesn’t begin until a designer is selected. By this process, Mr. Gehry was selected from 44 applicants without submitting an actual proposal. Is it any wonder that he then produced a design in his signature style? Apart from being exclusionary, the Design Excellence Program is profoundly unsuited to memorial design, where the power of a particular proposal matters more than its author’s experience.

Fortunately, we have a precedent for reversing such a flawed selection process. When in 1996 the American Battle Monuments Commission also turned to the Design Excellence Program to select a designer for the World War II Memorial, the same protests eventually led to a competition that drew more than 400 entries. We should likewise set aside the current Eisenhower Memorial proposal and hold a public competition open to all.

Indeed, the World War II Memorial Competition provides both a specific template for this competition and a more general guide for retaining the strengths of a failed process in its replacement. That competition was organized into two stages. The first stage called for anonymous submissions in a standard graphic format; the second invited a group of six finalists, which included students and unknown architects as well as major corporate designers, to assemble teams of experts whose collective experience was factored into the final decision. Individual designs were thus prioritized without sacrificing attention to professional qualifications.

The current proposal, on the other hand, can should help shape clear design guidelines for a competition. What is the proper size and scope of a memorial to President Eisenhower? What aspects of his achievement should we emphasize? How should his memorial engage with the Mall and the larger urban plan of Washington? These are the larger questions raised by Mr. Gehry’s proposal; competition guidelines that take a clear position on them will provide entrants with both guidance and flexibility.

What about the additional time and money required to redesign the memorial? This is ultimately a question of weighing short-term concerns against long-term priorities. We might compare, however, the costs of building and maintaining the current four-acre proposal against those of something more modest. In the long run, good design doesn’t cost; it pays.

I believe President Eisenhower would agree. Two weeks before the invasion of Normandy, as commander of the Allied forces, he issued an order that all historical monuments encountered in combat, “which symbolize to the world all that we are fighting to preserve,” should themselves be preserved where possible. That is because he saw them as expressions of that common purpose to which, as soldier or statesman, he always appealed. We should be equally careful and broad-minded in creating a monument to him. Let us find common purpose in a fair and democratic design process.

The writer is chairman of Driehaus Capital Management in Chicago. Each year he gives a prize for architecture and urbanism with the University of Notre Dame.