Whatever your view, any design critique must address two basic questions: Will the form and content of the memorial meaningfully and movingly commemorate Eisenhower? And, as an artistic work of urban design and landscape architecture, will the memorial enhance the form and fabric of America’s capital city? Regrettably, the current design has serious problems on both counts.
The 1986 Commemorative Works Act stipulates that, on federal land in Washington, only events and people of “lasting historical significance” can be commemorated. But how to interpret and communicate historical significance is determined by a memorial’s sponsors and designers, subject to approval by the Commission of Fine Arts, the National Capital Planning Commission and the National Park Service.
As Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War II, the first commander of NATO and America’s president from 1953 to 1961, Eisenhower’s lasting historical significance is not in question. He steered the United States through two hot wars and the Cold War; launched development of the interstate highway system; supported the early civil rights movement; and promoted international discourse and understanding. The essence and historic import of these and other achievements should constitute the memorial’s dominant narrative content.
Yet Gehry’s design prominently represents Eisenhower’s youthful years and the Midwestern landscape where he grew up. Seeking to avoid presenting Ike as a larger-than-life hero, the design instead romanticizes and mythologizes his humble beginnings as a small-town, barefoot boy from Kansas. But is Eisenhower’s youth so unique and historically significant in shaping his character that it justifies thematic prominence in the memorial?
Abraham Lincoln lived in a log cabin, and we appreciate his humble beginnings. But it’s Lincoln’s courage, actions and achievements as America’s 16th president, not the log cabin, that make him of “lasting historical significance.” Likewise, Eisenhower’s significance in American history is attributable not to his childhood, formative as it might have been, but rather to his exemplary military, political and diplomatic leadership as an adult.
How well does Gehry’s design mesh with its urban context? The memorial site is a huge rectangular space — four acres, the area of four football fields — bounded on the east and west by 4th and 6th streets SW; on the north by Independence Avenue and the Air and Space Museum; and on the south by the Lyndon Baines Johnson Department of Education building. A short segment of Maryland Avenue, axially aligned with the Capitol, traverses the site and will be closed. The northeastward view of the Capitol dome from the site will be preserved.