The world’s most-famous architect sailed into a storm of old-fashioned Washington controversy this week.
At a public conversation Wednesday at the National Archives, Frank Gehry encountered hostile questions from audience members about his designs for a memorial to Dwight David Eisenhower planned for a prominent spot on Independence Avenue, just south of the Mall.
And Thursday, he received pointed queries from members of the National Capital Planning Commission, one of the oversight groups that must approve Gehry’s vision before it can be built. Asked about Gehry’s design, three of the former president’s granddaughters issued a statement expressing concern about the “concept for the memorial, as well as the scope and scale of it.”
The controversy, both in the Eisenhower family and in the public, comes as Gehry’s concept for a memorial to the 34th president has been focused on what he calls “the barefoot boy” from Kansas.
Taken from a speech given by Eisenhower after he returned from the Second World War to his home town of Abilene, the barefoot boy image stresses Eisenhower’s simple roots and prevailing modesty.
To realize that visually, Gehry designed the memorial as a set of woven metal tapestries hung from large stone pillars that includes a wintry scene of the Kansas landscape. As Gehry has worked in collaboration with avant-garde theater artist Robert Wilson and focused on the theme of humility, the design for the memorial has emerged as more radical, innovative and unsettling than it seemed when preliminary models and renderings were first shown in March 2010.
Signed by Eisenhower granddaughters Anne, Susan and Mary Jean Eisenhower, their statement expressed gratitude to Congress and the White House for their support of the memorial but called for a timeout in the approval process. “We feel that now is the time to get these elements right — before any final design approvals are given and before any ground is broken.”
The Eisenhowers’ statement will renew long-standing debates — which resurfaced during the design and construction of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial — about what role, if any, family members should have in determining the country’s memorial legacy.
Daniel J. Feil, executive architect for the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, said that his organization would defer comment on the Eisenhower sisters’ statement but that David Eisenhower, the brother of Anne, Susan and Mary Jean, is a commission member and supports the design. David Eisenhower could not be reached for comment.
Gehry and Wilson are trying to break with centuries of tradition in the aesthetics of memorialization. The new memorial is conceived as a theatrical space in a parklike setting. The tapestry, which some have compared to a theater scrim, stands in stark contrast to the classical tradition of marble arches, pillars and other Greek and Roman derivatives. It is meant to be diaphanous and poetic, rather than solid and substantial.
The designers are also mulling plans for a statue representing the former president, but not in his role as chief executive or supreme commander of the Allied Forces, which liberated Europe from Nazi domination in World War II.
Rather, they are intrigued by representing Eisenhower as a young man. At the National Archives event, they displayed a photograph of Eisenhower, apparently taken in 1904 while the teenager was camping with friends along the Smoky Hill River. The future president, with a luxurious head of hair, is seen wearing grubby overalls and sitting at a picnic table with his legs splayed out in front of him.
“The barefoot boy from Kansas,” said Robert Wilson, “became very compelling” as the two sought a way to capture Eisenhower’s personality. In response to concerns that this approach leaves out his military and presidential career, the two artists said they are considering including carved panels, reminiscent of the frieze on the Parthenon, that would address those aspects of his career.
No final decisions have been made about the statue or the carved panels.
The focus on modesty is among the general concerns raised by audience members at the National Archives panel. Justin Shubow, secretary of the board of the National Civic Art Society, which last spring held an independent competition to solicit more traditional ideas for the memorial, quoted one of Gehry’s philosophical statements about design: “Life is chaotic, dangerous and surprising. Buildings should reflect that.”
Shubow says that philosophy should disqualify Gehry from designing a memorial to a man of Eisenhower’s accomplishment and seriousness.
“A life-size sculpture of a barefoot boy — if that’s how we want to memorialize Eisenhower, that’s a travesty,” Shubow said. Other members of the audience accused Gehry of designing a “postmodern” memorial that doesn’t fit with other memorials and architecture in Washington. One questioner called the design “the emperor’s new clothes.”
In a brief interview, Gehry said that he has heard the family’s concerns and is working to address them. He also cited the enthusiastic approval of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts in a Sept. 22 letter sent to the National Park Service, which will own and care for the memorial.
At the National Capital Planning Commission hearing, Carl W. Reddel, director of the memorial commission, praised the Los Angeles-based Gehry and his team for being flexible and responsive to concerns about the design. Since January, when an earlier version of the design was unveiled, the size of the main tapestry has been reduced, and two smaller tapestries have been rotated 90 degrees to keep sight lines open along Maryland Avenue and create a more contained, theatrical, boxlike space framing the memorial. More green elements, including a grass-covered allée through the middle of the site, have been included.
But Reddel acknowledged that the memorial commission is moving quickly, which may be rattling a town that likes to take decades considering additions to its monumental core. His commission is racing to meet an Oct. 28 deadline to reserve a place on the NCPC’s Dec. 1 meeting agenda, at which it hopes to gain preliminary design approval. The current schedule calls for breaking ground in late fall 2012 and opening on Memorial Day in 2015.
One major hurdle was cleared last month when prototypes of the metal tapestry were displayed at the memorial site for several days. Feil, the memorial’s resident architect, said that some members of the Commission of Fine Arts expressed surprise and pleasure at how well they looked, sentiments repeated at Thursday’s NCPC meeting by commissioners who called the metal mesh “dazzling” and “delightful.” But several commission members were still wrestling with concern about the size of the memorial and the large stone columns that one member called “the biggest, baddest bollards around.”
In the two days of public events, it also became clear that Wilson’s distinct theatrical style will have a major impact on the design. Wilson specializes in visual and dramatic distillation, heightening the counterintuitive and the paradoxical elements of a narrative. He likes things spare and poetic, and he told audience members Wednesday that he didn’t want visitors to be overwhelmed with historical and biographical information they could find in books or on the Internet. With the new emphasis on Eisenhower’s humble origins, he is represented as a mythic everyman, a classic American archetype of the self-made hero. That rankles some opponents of the memorial.
But the emphasis on Eisenhower’s personality and character is essential to the radical approach that Gehry and Wilson have taken. Rather than fall back on the established traditions of triumphalist and celebratory memorialization, or side-step controversy through abstraction (as in Maya Lin’s design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial), Gehry and Wilson are making a statement about their conception of Eisenhower, leadership and American values. Just under the surface of this memorial to modesty, focusing on the adolescent boy rather than the man, is an argument about what makes America exceptional. Gehry’s design underscores social mobility and opportunity, the quiet use of power and the ultimate humility of a man who was once the leader of the free world. As so often in debates about memorials in Washington, it is the politics underneath the design that galvanizes opinion.