The presidential memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower is stuck in political and regulatory limbo, despite assurances from its sponsoring commission that the 14-year project is finally on track.
Last month the Eisenhower Memorial Commission officially adopted a controversial design by architect Frank Gehry. But the unanimous vote was largely symbolic because the design lacks federal approval and congressional funding. Both are in doubt after years of mounting controversy over Gehry’s design. One agency has denied it even a preliminary review amid questions about its cost and durability, and for more than a year Congress has been investigating the unusual process that led to Gehry’s selection.
The House is now considering a bill to replace that process with the public design competition standard for national memorials. That is the only proper course for a design that’s become this contentious and that has already failed to fulfill its primary, unifying purpose.
Why did the Eisenhower Memorial Commission abandon standard practice? For the past 30 years, including the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and those commemorating Sept. 11, 2001, we have designed national memorials through competitions open to all, with judges choosing from anonymous designs according to merit. But this commission sought a famous designer, not a design, and it considered only practicing architects with long résumés. On that basis it chose Gehry before he submitted a final design.
This backward selection process is the real source of the controversy. For one thing, it provided no alternatives to whatever Gehry came up with, which has turned out to be unexpectedly expensive and difficult to build. Realizing his plan will cost at least $142 million, significantly more than his original brief of $55 million to $75 million, which is about what the other presidential memorials would cost if built today. His plan is so expensive because Gehry intends to use experimental techniques and materials on an unprecedented scale, primarily in three eight-story steel-cable “tapestries” hung from huge concrete pylons. Such ambitious use of untried elements cannot be certified as durable and permanent, as the law requires. The National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) has declined to review the current design.
Selecting a designer rather than a design shifted public attention from the memorial’s subject to its designer. Gehry has produced a very personal interpretation of President Eisenhower’s legacy, which has proved vulnerable to charges that he, not Eisenhower, is the real subject of this memorial.
Logistical and philosophical controversies have gradually undermined the Eisenhower Memorial’s once-solid support in Congress, which the commission is counting on to provide most of the project’s construction funding. In March legislators suspended the funding for the fiscal year, and last month the House Natural Resources Committee passed a bill by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) calling for the selection of a new design through a public competition. The bill would also appoint an all-new memorial commission to administer that competition.
As that bill wends its slow way through Congress, which will be in recess for much of August, the commission is pressing its case with federal regulators. Last week it presented the NCPC with test results compiled by its hired experts that purport to show that the current design is durable and permanent. Also, last week the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts agreed to review the memorial this Thursday. The Eisenhower Memorial Commission is building momentum where there is no agreement, a strategy that will make this memorial even more contentious and that may bring an embarrassing showdown with Congress. Is this the right way to commemorate a leader who fought and governed through consensus?
We must restore consensus to the Eisenhower Memorial if it is to properly reflect his legacy. Consensus comes naturally to a design process that is open to everyone, which is why public design competitions are standard practice for national memorials. Once the commission or Congress reconsiders the fateful decision to depart from that practice, we can return to the tried-and-true public process we should have started with.
Sam Roche is a writer and a lecturer at the University of Miami School of Architecture. He is the spokesman for Right by Ike: Project for a New Eisenhower Memorial.