I Like Ike (and His Memorial)

Article Author: 
Witold Rybczynski, OpEd, The New York Times
News Abstract: 
On Tuesday, the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands held a hearing on Frank Gehry’s controversial design for the Dwight D. Eisenhower memorial. National memorials are managed by the National Park Service, which is why the Congressional subcommittee involved itself, even though reviewing architectural design, as Representative Raúl M. Grijalva observed, involves “something well outside our purview.”

What has fueled the Eisenhower memorial controversy in the media are the public pronouncements of two of the president’s granddaughters, Susan and Anne Eisenhower, who have proclaimed themselves dissatisfied with the design. Understandably, their position is being taken seriously. Yet I am concerned that the growing public brouhaha will ultimately weaken the memorial design.

The Eisenhower memorial is to be located on a parcel of land just south of the National Mall, between the National Air and Space Museum and the Department of Education building. It covers four acres, slightly more than the area of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The proposed memorial would not sprawl over the entire site, as some critics have maintained. What Mr. Gehry has done is to place the memorial to the 34th president in what is effectively a new public park.

The dominant feature of the memorial, and one of the design elements to which the Eisenhower family objects, is the 80-foot-high colonnade that rings the site. The design has been described, somewhat pejoratively, as “Gehryesque,” as if it were an alien presence.

But this is precisely what it is not. As my former colleague on the United States Commission of Fine Arts, Michael McKinnell, pointed out when the commission reviewed the design (we unanimously approved the general concept), this is, in effect, a roofless building; more specifically, it is a roofless classical temple — in a city replete with classical monuments. Moreover, it provides a sense of cohesion to this city’s currently fragmented urban space.

The colonnade supports a metal screen that carries images of the Kansas landscape in which Eisenhower grew up. When first confronted with this idea, I was concerned that mechanically imprinted screens, which the architect insisted on calling “tapestries,” would resemble large billboards.

Since then Mr. Gehry and his collaborators have developed hand-weaving techniques so that the screens really do resemble tapestries. Having seen full-size mock-ups of the screens on the site, I am convinced that their size will not be out of scale with the surroundings.

Another target of the critics is the proposal to include a statue of the president as a youth, recalling that he sometimes referred to himself as a “Kansas farm boy.” Some consider this an affront to a man who was a victorious five-star general as well as a successful two-term president; others find it a touching reminder of Eisenhower’s modest Midwestern roots.

I fall in the second camp, but in either case, it is important to recognize that the statue, whose design has not been finalized, will not be the only, or the largest, representation of the president on the site. The design, as it currently stands, includes two very large bas-reliefs of Eisenhower, one as military leader and one as president, as well as inscribed quotations. In this context, the small statue will have the effect of a footnote.

Still, the debates over the memorial give the impression that Mr. Gehry is effectively being forced on the family, the city and the president’s legacy. But that’s simply not true.

The four finalists who prepared designs for the memorial were picked, by a jury that included Eisenhower’s grandson David, from a list compiled by a panel of leading architects, who in turn chose from among 44 firms that submitted their names to the memorial commission. Ever since the Vietnam Veterans Memorial competition was won by Maya Lin, then a college student, it is taken for granted that the best memorial designs are the result of open competitions, in which hundreds of (largely unqualified) individuals compete.

But the accepted wisdom is wrong — the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is an exception. It’s worth remembering that the Lincoln Memorial was the result of a competition between only two young architects — Henry Bacon and John Russell Pope — and the loser, Pope, was later invited to design the Jefferson Memorial; no one else was considered.

What’s more, both the Lincoln Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial were the objects of criticism when they were proposed: why was Lincoln portrayed as a tired rather than a triumphant leader; why was Jefferson housed in a Roman temple? Today, of course, these memorials are among the country’s most beloved structures.

Presidential memorials take a long time to come to fruition — the Lincoln Memorial took more than 12 years — and the design team will continue refining its design for the Eisenhower memorial. Mr. Gehry, our finest living architect, has already shown himself willing to listen to critical suggestions.

But in this case, too many cooks will definitely spoil the broth. Compromise and consensus are important when devising legislation, but they are a poor recipe for creating a memorial.

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Witold Rybczynski is a member of the United States Commission of Fine Arts and the author, most recently, of “The Biography of a Building.”

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News Date: 
Thursday, March 22, 2012