Over the past decade, with the opening of the World War II Memorial in 2004 and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial late this summer, it seemed as if a long tradition of civic architecture had finally reached a sad and vitiated end. The giant war memorial that ate up acres of the Mall hearkened back to the aesthetics of the very countries the United States defeated, an exercise in regurgitated totalitarian grandeur. The language of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial was more contemporary but caught up in the same design quandary that has bedevilled architects for almost three decades since the opening of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982. Uncertain whether to embrace abstraction and conceptualism, or the traditional language of marble statues and heroic flourishes, the designers of the MLK Memorial tried a little of both, and failed like so many before them, producing a bland, often silly, and generally inert design calculated to offend no one.

But history isn’t over, and there are ideas left with which to reinvigorate the tradition of memorial architecture. While it might have seemed an odd mismatch to chose Frank Gehry , an architect of flamboyant gestures, to design a memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower, a military leader and president hallowed for his common touch, simplicity and humility, it was the right choice, and a daring one. Gehry’s design, which uses large-scale metal tapestries to memorialize the 34th president, is the first serious innovation in the history of memorial design since the bold and abstract geometries of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial (now gravely threatened by a bizarre plan to build an unnecessary visitors center nearby).

Gehry has produced a design that inverts several of the sacred hierarchies of the classical memorial, emphasizing ideas of domesticity and interiority rather than masculine power and external display. He has “re-gendered” the vocabulary of memorialization, giving it new life and vitality just at the moment when the old, exhausted “masculine” memorial threatened to make the entire project of remembering great people in the public square seem obsolete. If there are murmurings within the Eisenhower family and among Gehry skeptics and conservative critics, they probably have a lot to do with the basic feminization of the memorial language.

‘Dreams of a barefoot boy’

Gehry’s design, which may go to the National Capital Planning Commission for a critical approval hearing as early as February, is centered on three large metal tapestries. If there aren’t major changes to the plan, they will show scenes reminiscent of Eisenhower’s boyhood home, Abilene, using the wide-open Kansas sky and minimalist landscape to keep the texture transparent. Bas reliefs will represent Eisenhower’s success as a military leader and as president, and a statue of the young Eisenhower will be placed so as to appear to be reading the events of his life to come. Eisenhower the man of action will be complemented by a more contemplative figure, a reference to the dreaminess of youth and the traditionally feminine passivity of reading.

Through his collaboration with the theater artist Robert Wilson, Gehry has focused on Eisenhower’s youth in Kansas as an organizing motif, a way of stressing his modesty, his humble origins and the social mobility that was once a cherished part of American culture. Borrowing Eisenhower’s own language (from a speech the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces gave at his postwar homecoming to Abilene), Gehry is emphasizing the “dreams of a barefoot boy,” in his depiction of the military and political leader.

Tapestries have a long history of serving hagiographic and political purposes. They weren’t just sumptuous decorative objects, but carried images that celebrated military, political and dynastic accomplishment (as with the famous Pastrana Tapestries now on view at the National Gallery of Art). Charles the Bold brought tapestries with him to the 1477 Battle of Nancy to decorate his war tent, and when he lost the battle these tapestries became booty for victorious Swiss troops. But while their military bona fides are beyond dispute, they are also made of cloth, and were essentially indoor and domestic objects. Gehry’s vision of an outdoor tapestry not only raises unique design challenges — how to “weave” it and preserve it over time — it subverts the idea of indoors and out, domestic and public, eliding boundaries between feminine and masculine space.

The transparency of the metal material, its suppleness and flexibility, stand in contrast to the permanence and solidity of the standard materials of memorial architecture, stone, concrete and earth. Designers looking for alternatives to the “hardscape” of traditional memorials have often turned to water, as landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson did in her memorial to Princess Diana in Hyde Park, London. But fountains are notoriously fickle, and they have long been used as accents to grand and traditional memorials. Gehry has found a material that shares some of the ephemeral nature of water, but will last through the ages, and is entirely free of cliche.

Beyond the heroic ideal

As the design has progressed, it has become more aligned with the values of contemporary theater. Whether that represents Wilson’s influence or simply the evolution of Gehry’s thinking doesn’t matter. The memorial now strives for two basic theatrical virtues: open-endedness or permeability, and psychological distillation. Both values are essentially innovations in the language of memorial design, which has traditionally set one particular understanding — this man was great, this war was just, these people were victims — beyond debate, etching it literally in stone. By focusing on the young Eisenhower, the memorial allows visitors more space to form their own assessment of Eisenhower’s legacy.

It also finesses a plaguing problem of most memorials: Few great men are absolutely great, without flaws and failings. Although Eisenhower is remembered more fondly now than he was in the 1960s and ’70s, there are still debates about his strategy in the Second World War (was he too cautious, thus prolonging the war?), his role during the McCarthy witch hunts (why didn’t he more publicly confront the congressional Torquemadas?) and his role in foreign adventures (bloody CIA interventions and the doomed Bay of Pigs invasion). The young Eisenhower is both innocent of and yet pregnant with whatever failings history ultimately attributes to his career.

Traditional memorials place the subject over and above the viewer. Contemporary theater uses a different set of metaphors for describing its approach: How does one enter into the subject? What threads can connect the disparate parts of a man’s psychology and narrative? Theater can dispense with basic organizing elements such as strict causality or chronology, allowing the viewer to see a man, or an event, from the multiple perspectives of before, during and after, but necessarily in that order, or in any order at all. The psychologizing nature of theater allows emotional material that is rarely manifested in public memorials to come into full view: anxiety, doubt, regret, uncertainty. All of these are essential to greatness but are almost never represented in public memorials.

The depiction of Eisenhower as a young man — if indeed that is what is finally decided upon — helps give color and shadow to the idea that Eisenhower was a great leader. The adolescent Eisenhower is unformed, pure potential, not yet manly. If there are concerns about representing Eisenhower through a statue inspired by the famous photograph of a tussle-haired boy with his legs splayed wide (Gehry has referred to the photograph as possible source for the statue), they likely have to do with the equivocal status of adolescent or ephebic males, once a standard way of representing civic or social ideals (think of Michelangelo’s David or the profusion of Kouros statues in ancient Greece). As in Gehry’s use of tapestries, which also have traditional memorial associations, his vision of a young man recalls legitimate memorial traditions so old they seem radical upon reintroduction.

The man in his element

In a democracy, greatness has as much to do with what people don’t do with power as what they accomplish with it. George Washington was compared to Cincinnatus, the Roman aristocrat who gave up dictatorial power after dispatching the enemies of Rome in battle. Yet very few monuments celebrate what it takes to be uncorrupted by power, the missing demon that divides the famous from the infamous, the virtue that yields an absence of ugliness, a missing litany of unnecessary violence, aggrandizement and corruption. If a man’s greatest accomplishment are the things he didn’t do, how does one represent that?

Gehry has found a way. His design for the Eisenhower Memorial literally inverts the Cincinnatus story, bringing the landscape of the farm into the very center of the American imperium. The proposed design for the main tapestry, a vision of the Kansas landscape, isn’t just a reference to Eisenhower’s formative years; it is a provocative insertion of the values represented by the landscape — innocence, opportunity, equality — into a political culture that pays lip service to hard work but cynically rewards wealth with more wealth and power with more power.

As the memorial design has progressed, the space has been defined as both more contained (inwardly focused and theatrical, with the tapestries turned to form a U-shaped space) and permeable (a tree-lined corridor that traces the line of Maryland Avenue will cut through the plaza). It is very likely that the effect will be that of a giant stage set enveloping a relatively small representation of Eisenhower, yet another inversion of traditional hierarchies that suggests a powerful sense of the finitude of man and the vastness of history, nature and fate. Usually, it’s the other way around: A large man dominates the backdrop or architectural setting.

But this inversion is as welcome as all the others. Eisenhower was a great man, but there were other Eisenhowers right behind him, other men who could have done what he did, who would have risen to the occasion if they had been tapped. To deny that does Eisenhower no honor and great injustice to the surfeit of American talent. At last, we have a memorial that makes literal the larger forces, the unknowns, the imponderables of history and contingency, allowing them to form the memorial space, and put the man in proper perspective.