The design envisions immense cylindrical columns, 80 feet high and 11 feet in diameter, marching around the site’s east, west and south edges. Relatively transparent tapestries of woven, stainless steel mesh will hang vertically between the columns. To evoke Eisenhower’s youth, the expansive tapestries will display enormous images of the Kansas countryside dominated by the tracery of leafless deciduous trees. In fact, the landscapes shown in the images could be found in a number of American states.
In effect, a gigantic fence rising on three sides of the site would create a four-acre enclave. Contained within the enclave would be a landscape of plantings, hard-scaped paths and terraces, interpretive commemoration elements and stands of deciduous trees. This produces a bizarre, indeed perverse tableau: Real trees growing in soil surrounded and overlooked by looming images of trees.
The fence-on-steroids structure outlines and frames a building-sized, outdoor room with dimensions unnecessarily rivaling the scale and bulk of surrounding buildings. With scrim-like metal tapestries spanning from column to column around the perimeter, the room would appear to be a giant stage facing the Air and Space Museum, while dismissively turning its back to the education building.
Designating all rather than part of this large site exclusively for the Eisenhower Memorial was the first mistake. It invited and spawned creation of a grandiose, all-encompassing design filling and controlling all four acres, exactly what Gehry has provided. How paradoxical that his larger-than-life, heroically scaled theatrical composition so clearly contradicts aspirations to show Eisenhower as a humane, modest historic figure rather than a superhero.
An urban open space already framed by existing buildings, the site should have been treated as a public park from the outset, with only a portion of the four-acre space dedicated to commemorating Eisenhower. The park could then serve other civic purposes and, in future decades, provide ample space for additional memorials, perhaps commemorating another American president or two.
The memorial design’s architectural style and its specific materials and elements — metal tapestries and cylindrical columns — are not the problem. Rather, the project’s aesthetic flaws stem primarily from urban design missteps: bloated size and proportions; and unwarranted, inappropriate transformation of an urban open space into a quasi-enclosed precinct. If Eisenhower could see the project, I have no doubt that he would disapprove.
Perhaps the National Capital Planning Commission, when it next reviews the design, will muster the courage to do what the Commission of Fine Arts has not done: Just say no. The NCPC would have lots of company.
Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.