For Frank Gehry's Eisenhower memorial, less would be more

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By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, April 10, 2010

Architect Frank Gehry's design concept for the Dwight D. Eisenhower National Memorial, while not embodying Gehry's signature language of complex curved surfaces, does achieve the bigness and boldness that are hallmarks of his work. But pursuing bigness and boldness can lead to bloat, which regrettably appears to be the hallmark of the memorial design.

The designated Eisenhower memorial site is a large open space south of the National Air and Space Museum. Maryland Avenue SW divides the site into two triangular spaces, one now a small public garden and the other an underutilized public plaza in front of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Department of Education Building. Closing the avenue will create an extensive rectangular site bounded by Independence Avenue, 4th and 6th streets, and the Education building.

As in all memorial design, the challenge was to find an appropriate expression of commemoration -- in this case, honoring Eisenhower's historic achievements as a great military leader, university president and president of the United States. But Gehry also faced urban design challenges: an expansive four-acre site, equivalent to almost four football fields; a massive, very popular museum directly across busy Independence Avenue; and a sizable, architecturally undistinguished federal office building stretching across the site's entire southern edge.

These challenges elicited two questionable design strategies: compete with and match the scale of the large, neighboring edifices and, going a step further, hide the federal office building. This was not easy, since the memorial is not a building.

So Gehry did the next best thing to designing a building. Using tall, monumentally scaled cylindrical columns marching along the site's north and south edges, and stretching woven metal "tapestries" several stories high between the columns, he created a virtual building in outline. The colonnade and mesh scrim along the south edge of the memorial mask the Education Department building. On the Independence Avenue side, mesh segments span only the pairs of columns adjacent to 4th and 6th streets, allowing views into and out of the memorial site.

The heroically scaled colonnades and mesh scrims boldly frame and contain the memorial, at once an enclosed urban space and a seemingly sacred space. Within the sanctuary will be paved walking surfaces, trees and, in the center, a circular array of stone blocks of diverse size, shape and orientation. Surrounding a vegetated area and pool, the stones will contain carved images and commemorative inscriptions.

The design exploits the dramatic contrast between the immense scale of the colonnades and scrims and the intimate, pedestrian-scale space within. But it raises fundamental questions. In any city, and in Washington in particular, why house a memorial in a new, quasi-enclosed "room" -- built at great expense -- within a larger urban "room" already framed by existing buildings? And why does this or any other memorial need to be so large and necessitate so much construction?

As we architects often say, it looks overdesigned. The scale and dimensional aspirations of the project are not surprising, given both Gehry's compositional bent and the tendency to create imposing, expansive memorials in the capital's monumental core.

Several memorials of recent vintage consume generous amounts of landscape. For example, the artfully hewn Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, stretching along the southwestern edge of the Tidal Basin, is inspiring but physically more extensive than necessary. And the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, with an evocative stone sculpture of King at its center, will occupy a sizable piece of West Potomac Park on the western edge of the Tidal Basin.

It may appear that lots of public property remains on which to build memorials in the heart of the nation's capital. But if we keep using excessive amounts of land for each new one, eventually we will run out of sites. Where will future generations erect memorials, since surely many more individuals and events will deserve commemoration in centuries to come?

The desire for grand memorials is understandable. But creating an inspiring memorial does not necessitate building something vast, grandiose or bristling with an excess of elements. A simple yet memorable design idea, beautifully uniting landscape and structure, can be very powerful. The Washington Monument, a tall, unadorned obelisk on a low hill, exemplifies potent simplicity. Conversely, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial incises a simple, inscribed wall and walkway within the landscape, an expressive gesture of commemoration that profoundly moves visitors.

Fortunately, the Eisenhower memorial design is preliminary, and there is time and opportunity for Gehry to explore the notion that, for this project, less might be more. Let's hope that the architect and his client do some serious aesthetic editing.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland. He may be contacted at rogershome@aol.com.


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