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For D.C. Debut, Gehry Grapples With Ike Site -- And Himself

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 17, 2009

It seems, at first, like a consolation prize. A decade ago, Washington began salivating over the possibility of a Frank Gehry addition to the Corcoran Gallery. But the money never materialized and the project withered on the vine in 2005. But now, with the Corcoran laying off staff, and Gehry already 80 (inspiring speculation about how many future projects he will undertake), comes news that Washington will have a Gehry after all.

It is a strange match of architect and commission. Gehry, the flashiest of architectural stars, has been selected to design a memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower, one of the least flashy of presidents. The memorial will sit at Maryland and Independence avenues, between Fourth and Sixth streets SW on a triangle of land across from the National Museum of the American Indian, and in full view of the Capitol. Technically it is off the Mall, but it is still a prize bit of property. And of course there are already complaints about putting anything there at all, especially from those who advocate reopening Maryland Avenue as a long vista, as Pierre L'Enfant imagined in his original design for the District.

According to a document prepared by the nonprofit group that is driving the memorial's design and construction, the new structure "will be a 'plaza-type' memorial," with a canopy and a 2,500-square-foot support building. So it seems they're hiring Gehry to design a bathroom, bookstore, small office and glorified sunshade. Gehry, an architect renowned for giant confections of titanium and glass and torquing volumes that defy any kind of contextualization, will confine his imagination to a four-acre parcel in one of the most historically contested corners of the capital.

But there's other, more encouraging language, in the document as well.

"No language currently exists for a 21st century memorial," reads the project description. "The result will be a new vision of memorialization: a new paradigm for memorials." And that's where one hopes the group chose Gehry for all the right reasons.

The easy route, for this sort of plaza memorial, is something akin to the not-very-interesting design of the Navy Memorial at Pennsylvania Avenue between Seventh and Ninth streets NW. It has a water element, some nice paving, a few benches and a little statue, "The Lone Sailor," to suggest the human element of military service. The memorial's best feature is its humility and its benign incorporation into the cityscape.

Any number of second-tier landscape architecture firms could provide more of the same: some nice landscaping, an interactive kiosk and perhaps a respectful bronze bust of old Ike's iconic bald head. But the Eisenhower Memorial Commission wants to do more to honor the man who not only defeated Hitler, but who also built the Interstate Highway System, created the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and helped pass and enforce critical civil-rights legislation.

Despite an ambitious educational agenda, and a call for a "new paradigm," there are only so many ways that all this information can be conveyed. Very likely, given the commission's request for "a very significant electronic component," the result will be a heavy use of interactive devices. Which is hardly a new paradigm. One hopes they don't overwhelm the place, creating a kind of outdoor version of the Newseum.

For years, Gehry has been working on a very grand scale, and this project will present a fascinating challenge to his sometimes grandiose imagination. The budget for this project, $55 million to $75 million, is relatively small compared with recent Gehry projects. And so he is, from the very beginning, constrained on all sides: financially, contextually, historically, politically.

Earlier in his career, Gehry did some important small-scale residential work, and in 2003 he designed an understated health center for cancer patients in Dundee, Scotland. But can he scale down a major civic memorial to fit onto a small parcel that is already suffering from some major stylistic cacophony? His 2008 design for a temporary pavilion for London's Serpentine Gallery -- a jumble of wood and glass panels seemingly hung from a huge pair of parallel bars -- is not encouraging. Its wild angles and tilting planes are just the thing to set the District's design watchdogs baying for blood.

It seems that if Gehry is to succeed in Washington, he must not only reinvent the paradigm for memorialization, he must also reinvent himself. People who have worked with Gehry often say that the important thing is to keep the leash short. Challenge him. Confront him. Push back.

But maybe this time, the conventional wisdom is wrong. Perhaps only an architect of his imagination can do anything above the ordinary with this odd commission. He has built some disappointing buildings lately. But he is still one of the past century's great architects. If he can reinvent memorialization in this city of tombs and museums and memory gardens, his career and legacy will have taken another spin on the wheel, this time in the right direction. He deserves the freedom to try.

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