by Philip Kennicott
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) has called upon members of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission to delay asking an important planning commission for approval to move forward with the Frank Gehry-designed Eisenhower Memorial.
In a letter address to the EMC chairman Rocco C. Siciliano, Issa argues that important documents he needs to assess the process whereby architect Frank Gehry was chosen to design the memorial have not been given to his office. Without that information, Issa believes it is premature for the National Capital Planning Commission to go forward with a review and possible preliminary approval of the Gehry design. As chairman of the oversight committee, Issa is an ex-officio members of the NCPC.
Issa has been looking into the design selection process, run by the General Services Administration, which led to Gehry’s selection in March 2010. The GSA used a standard protocol under its Design Excellence program to vet firms before narrowing the field to a list of finalists who made presentations to the selection committee.
Critics of the Gehry-designed memorial, including the small nonprofit National Civic Art Society, have argued that the process is undemocratic because it requires firms to submit their qualifications for the job first. The NCAS argues that any designer or design firm should be able to submit an entry, a process used for some other memorials, but one that is often unwieldy and can yield designs that are unbuildable, from firms with no expertise or experience in large public projects.
Chris Kelley Cimko, a spokeswoman for the EMC, said she was confident that the selection process would be vindicated in any investigation. She noted that Eisenhower grandson David Eisenhower participated on the panel that selected Gehry, and that the process was a standard one.
“We’re very confident in the integrity of the process,” said Cimko.
Issa’s investigation puts the EMC in a difficult place, however. The documents Issa is seeking are from the GSA, not the EMC. Cimko says her group has encouraged the GSA to provide all necessary information.
“My great hope is that this will be forthcoming,” said Cimko.
Led by the NCAS and members of the Eisenhower family, opponents of the Gehry design have pursued multiple strategies for derailing the memorial. Susan Eisenhower has compared Gehry’s design, which calls for metal tapestries to define a park-like space at the intersection of Independence and Maryland Avenues SW, to communist pageantry, invoking the names of Hitler and Mao in public statements. The family recently issued a response to the most recent design changes by Gehry’s firm-- made in response to family criticism -- praising the firm’s ideas, but adamantly opposing the tapestries. That letter explained their opposition in environmental and economic terms, as a matter of sustainability and cost.
The investigation into the selection process, largely led by the NCAS, is a parallel process of slowing the memorial’s approval. The EMC had hoped to go before the NCPC as early as this summer, but mounting opposition among some political allies of the Eisenhower family could complicate that.