Architect Frank Gehry’s design for the congressionally authorized memorial to President Dwight D. Eisenhower is creatively unconventional, innovative in form and use of materials, monumental in scale — and the wrong thing to build.
Gehry’s initial concept, first unveiled early last year by the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, has elicited much criticism, including from Eisenhower family members. Critics have faulted the design’s non-traditional style and unusual interpretive strategy, as well as the process that led to the design.
Whatever your view, any design critique must address two basic questions: Will the form and content of the memorial meaningfully and movingly commemorate Eisenhower? And, as an artistic work of urban design and landscape architecture, will the memorial enhance the form and fabric of America’s capital city? Regrettably, the current design has serious problems on both counts.
The 1986 Commemorative Works Act stipulates that, on federal land in Washington, only events and people of “lasting historical significance” can be commemorated. But how to interpret and communicate historical significance is determined by a memorial’s sponsors and designers, subject to approval by the Commission of Fine Arts, the National Capital Planning Commission and the National Park Service.
As Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War II, the first commander of NATO and America’s president from 1953 to 1961, Eisenhower’s lasting historical significance is not in question. He steered the United States through two hot wars and the Cold War; launched development of the interstate highway system; supported the early civil rights movement; and promoted international discourse and understanding. The essence and historic import of these and other achievements should constitute the memorial’s dominant narrative content.
Yet Gehry’s design prominently represents Eisenhower’s youthful years and the Midwestern landscape where he grew up. Seeking to avoid presenting Ike as a larger-than-life hero, the design instead romanticizes and mythologizes his humble beginnings as a small-town, barefoot boy from Kansas. But is Eisenhower’s youth so unique and historically significant in shaping his character that it justifies thematic prominence in the memorial?
Abraham Lincoln lived in a log cabin, and we appreciate his humble beginnings. But it’s Lincoln’s courage, actions and achievements as America’s 16th president, not the log cabin, that make him of “lasting historical significance.” Likewise, Eisenhower’s significance in American history is attributable not to his childhood, formative as it might have been, but rather to his exemplary military, political and diplomatic leadership as an adult.
How well does Gehry’s design mesh with its urban context? The memorial site is a huge rectangular space — four acres, the area of four football fields — bounded on the east and west by 4th and 6th streets SW; on the north by Independence Avenue and the Air and Space Museum; and on the south by the Lyndon Baines Johnson Department of Education building. A short segment of Maryland Avenue, axially aligned with the Capitol, traverses the site and will be closed. The northeastward view of the Capitol dome from the site will be preserved.
The design envisions immense cylindrical columns, 80 feet high and 11 feet in diameter, marching around the site’s east, west and south edges. Relatively transparent tapestries of woven, stainless steel mesh will hang vertically between the columns. To evoke Eisenhower’s youth, the expansive tapestries will display enormous images of the Kansas countryside dominated by the tracery of leafless deciduous trees. In fact, the landscapes shown in the images could be found in a number of American states.
In effect, a gigantic fence rising on three sides of the site would create a four-acre enclave. Contained within the enclave would be a landscape of plantings, hard-scaped paths and terraces, interpretive commemoration elements and stands of deciduous trees. This produces a bizarre, indeed perverse tableau: Real trees growing in soil surrounded and overlooked by looming images of trees.
The fence-on-steroids structure outlines and frames a building-sized, outdoor room with dimensions unnecessarily rivaling the scale and bulk of surrounding buildings. With scrim-like metal tapestries spanning from column to column around the perimeter, the room would appear to be a giant stage facing the Air and Space Museum, while dismissively turning its back to the education building.
Designating all rather than part of this large site exclusively for the Eisenhower Memorial was the first mistake. It invited and spawned creation of a grandiose, all-encompassing design filling and controlling all four acres, exactly what Gehry has provided. How paradoxical that his larger-than-life, heroically scaled theatrical composition so clearly contradicts aspirations to show Eisenhower as a humane, modest historic figure rather than a superhero.
An urban open space already framed by existing buildings, the site should have been treated as a public park from the outset, with only a portion of the four-acre space dedicated to commemorating Eisenhower. The park could then serve other civic purposes and, in future decades, provide ample space for additional memorials, perhaps commemorating another American president or two.
The memorial design’s architectural style and its specific materials and elements — metal tapestries and cylindrical columns — are not the problem. Rather, the project’s aesthetic flaws stem primarily from urban design missteps: bloated size and proportions; and unwarranted, inappropriate transformation of an urban open space into a quasi-enclosed precinct. If Eisenhower could see the project, I have no doubt that he would disapprove.
Perhaps the National Capital Planning Commission, when it next reviews the design, will muster the courage to do what the Commission of Fine Arts has not done: Just say no. The NCPC would have lots of company.
Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.