A federal commission has spent 15 years and $40 million planning a memorial to President Dwight Eisenhower that still hasn’t broken ground. The project is mired in controversy over a design unveiled nearly four years ago by the Eisenhower Memorial Commission and its architect, Frank Gehry. That design, which has divided public opinion and raised objections from the former president’s family, has failed to secure the planning approval and public funding it needs to get built. It is likely doomed after the federal budget passed in January removed all funding for construction (Gehry’s design would cost twice what it was supposed to) and drastically reduced operating funds for the Eisenhower Memorial Commission.
But the commission will not give up on a design that likely will never be built. Indeed, it won’t even acknowledge a problem, claiming through a spokesman that commissioners who are “used to the bare-bones budget” will be seeking new hearings for the approvals they so far have been denied. Cash reserves from an earlier congressional appropriation will enable them to prolong this process indefinitely and to leave us without the funds or the political will to commemorate Eisenhower once these reserves have been spent. Of course the reserves belong not to the Eisenhower Memorial Commission but to the public, and we should demand that the commission use them to find and build a more unifying, less expensive memorial.
The change will likely require new leadership on the commission. Its chairman, Rocco Siciliano, has close ties to Gehry — he was vice chairman of the Los Angeles Philharmonic when it gave the architect one of his biggest commissions, for the orchestra’s Walt Disney Concert Hall. Today Gehry and Siciliano are both “honorary life directors” on the Philharmonic’s board. Siciliano has tirelessly defended Gehry’s design for the memorial, even rebuffing his vice chairman, the late senator Daniel Inouye, when Inouye cautioned against staying with Gehry’s design over the objections of the Eisenhower family. Inouye knew something about getting presidential memorials built; he also served as vice chairman of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial Commission.
A new chairman might persuade the commissioners to revisit the selection process used to settle on Gehry, which departed radically from standard practice and barred any meaningful public participation. We have been designing national memorials through public competitions, open to everyone, since at least 1981, when a 21-year-old college student was chosen to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. This was possible because organizers solicited designs from all Americans, amateur or professional, and kept their submissions anonymous, to give equal opportunity and consideration to each. This approach worked so well that it became the template for every memorial designed for the Mall since.
The Eisenhower Memorial Commission scrapped that template in favor of a selection process more often used for federal courthouses and office buildings. This process seeks designers rather than designs, and so it proceeds from credentials rather than ideas. The commission considered only registered architects to design the Eisenhower Memorial and, by giving extra consideration to their reputations, virtually ensured that the job would go to a famous architect.
The problems facing Gehry’s design are the consequences of the commission’s departure from precedent. Choosing a designer first left Gehry free to work without concern for cost and, in fact, encouraged the daring boldness for which he is well known. It also left the public without alternatives to a design that is too daring and bold to be feasible. By making Gehry’s fame a factor in his selection, the commission left him vulnerable to charges that he, rather than Eisenhower, is the real subject of this memorial.
These problems have now reached the point that Congress has turned its back on Gehry’s design. It’s time to redirect a commission that is ignoring this fact before it fritters away the money and opportunity to commemorate Eisenhower. Thanks to the object lesson we’ve been given on the consequences of ignoring standard practice, we know just where to begin again.
The writer is a a lecturer at the University of Miami School of Architecture and spokesman for Right by Ike: Project for a New Eisenhower Memorial.
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