Housing Complex

The Eisenhower Memorial: Keeping Score

Tapestries: Kitschy or cutting edge?

Frank Gehry's latest design for the Eisenhower Memorial was supposed to go before the National Capital Planning Commission last week. Instead, the Eisenhower Memorial Commission pushed it off, and released new images of the sculptural elements of the design, apparently in an attempt to deflect attention away from the giant metal "tapestries" that had attracted so much ire. In a press release, the design team suggested the National Park Service had lagged in putting together the necessary documentation for an environmental assessment, but you'd understand if they might also have welcomed the chance to change the tenor of public comments when the proposal finally did get reviewed.

Many monuments now sitting peacefully on the Mall went through pitched debates and even wholesale revision before getting built: The Jefferson Memorial, for example, was publicly opposed by the Commission on Fine Arts even as it started construction. But the controversy over Eisenhower's homage, envisioned for Maryland Avenue SW in front of the Department of Education, is starting to reach historic heights, with a cavalcade of voices in opposition—most notably, the general's descendants. Negative reviews have come both from the architectural world, with critiques of the memorial as public space, as well as the right wing, which has taken up the memorial fight as a defense of military virtue and the greatness of individuals.

Still, some commentators have come to Gehry's defense, and it's becoming difficult to keep track of them all (I will also note for the record that with the exception of Susan Eisenhower, the people writing about this are all white guys). Herewith, a tallying up:


  • The Post's Phil Kennicott pens the most full-throated defense of the design, saying that it finds a way to complicate Eisenhower's military legacy with a non-cliche monumental vocabulary, leaving more interpretation up to the viewer.
  • Eisenhower Commission executive architect Daniel Feil said there had been too much focus on the tapestries, and that the Department of Education was supportive of the memorial to be build in their front yard.
  • Gehry himself defended the design by saying Eisenhower "didn't beat his chest" over his wartime accomplishments, treasured his hometown, and would have wanted his depiction to be modest, not "overblown."
  • Aaron Betsky, writing at Architect magazine, derided the immaturity of the debate around the memorial and spoke on behalf of the rural focus and created pubic park. Leave oversized statues of warriors striding off into the future to dictatorships. Let hidebound societies build memorials to the ways they have always done things. Let America create a memorial to one of its best scholar-warriors in a way that shows us how our greatness rises as a dream out of the past and a place we all share.
  • The Washington Business Journal's Doug Freuhling is unimpressed by Gehry's design, but figures fuck it, you never really know how a monument will turn out until it's built anyway.

The one sitting on the block is Eisenhower, ostensibly.


  • The National Civic Art Society has led the opposition, hosting a competition for classical alternatives and publishing a nearly book-length screed attacking the process and Gehry’s vision.
  • The Washington Post's Roger K. Lewis argued that the memorial "misses the mark" because of its focus on Eisenhower's youth, which isn't key to understanding his legacy, and because of its failure mesh with its urban context, creating a "bloated" space whose generically inscribed tapestries "unnecessarily rivaling the scale and bulk of surrounding buildings."
  • Architectural luminary (and D.C. visionary) Leon Krier called the memorial a misguided embrace of modernism, which Eisenhower himself disliked, and a throwback to the kind of stark urban renewal that has scarred Washington in the past.
  • Next American City called it "Huge, anonymous and forbearing," and an example of D.C.'s "monument problem."
  • Along with the rushed timeline and lack of adequate consultation, the Eisenhower family listed a number of gripes with the design, including its lack of durability over time, focus on rural imagery to the exclusion of Eisenhower's later accomplishments, and exclusion of the Lyndon B. Johnson Department of Education.
  • Susan Eisenhower explained further that she thinks the Lincoln Memorial got it right by saying one thing—Lincoln saved the Union.
  • Andrew Ferguson, writing at the Weekly Standard, basically agrees, and isn't so keen on this whole "regendering" thing.
  • The Heritage Foundation's Marion Smith thinks it's yet another attack of postmodernism and moral relativism on our American ideals.
  • Conservative commentator David Frum opines that Gehry was the wrong choice for the memorial, since he's never been particularly interested in subject matter, and that the Commission should start over with a new architect and smaller space.
  • Stephen Walt, writing at Foreign Policy, thinks the memorial doesn't do enough to celebrate Eisenhower's peacemaking legacy.
  • Rep. Frank R. Wolf of Virginia called on the NCPC to reject the design, out of sympathy with the Eisenhower family. then Reps. Aaron Schock and Daniel Lungren piled on.
  • George Weigel, writing at the National Review Online, thinks the statue of Eisenhower as a barefoot boy doesn’t pay appropriate homage to the war hero he became.
  • The Post's George Will says phooey on Gehry's sensitive character assessment—a memorial should celebrate a "preponderance of greatness."
  • The New York Times' Ross Douthat expanded on the greatness thing.
  • http://tsarchitect.nsflanagan.net цarьchitect

    The NCAS e-tome is kind of a little bit terrifying.

  • http://ConsDem Christine Wilson

    Why does Eisenhower require a monument?

  • Axel

    Terrible design, inappropriate representation of Ike. Send the concept back to the drawing board!

  • Eric

    Oh no, Lydia! "pubic park"

  • Thayer-D

    I read the NCAS e-tome and am still shaking in my boots!

  • Joanne P

    The Mall has become a memorial theme park. We should just cool it for awhile with these memorials.

    This design is just ugly. It certainly doesn't look like anyplace someone would want to linger, have lunch or meet anyone.

    For the sake of reality, these artistic renditions should also show what the park will look light at night and in the winter.

    Maybe if people could have visualized what the WWiI or Roosevelt memorial would look like in the winter with all the fountains turned off and nowhere comfortable to sit, they would have had second thoughts about the designs.

  • chris

    I completely support contemporary design but this is awful.

    What if they just eliminated the tapestries, and the fat toilet paper roll columns and left everything else? It would be a thousand times better and save a few million on construction.

  • Dave

    @Joanne, I certainly hope the WWII and Roosevelt Memorials wouldn't be resdeisgned, because they're among my favorite. The Roosevelt's water features are terrific, and helps the memorial stand out amongst all of the white marble one finds along the Mall.

    Now the Eisenhower memorial doesn't really do anything for me. I agree that it should probably be scrapped and sent back to the drawing board. But there's no reason to take the WWII or Roosevelt down with it.

  • Steve

    They made a mistake hiring a celebrity superstar as their architect. Gehry knows how to do one thing: that wavy sheets thing. On one building, it's interesting, but I can't see why every city thinks it needs to have a Gehry. Praise the Lord that the Corcoran abandoned their plans to build a Gehry wavy sheets addition.

    If the memorial committee wanted modern, someone like Maya Lin would have been good. Otherwise, they could have gotten the people who built the WWII memorial.

  • chris

    Steve, I agree. If it was just a local architect and not Gehry a scheme like this would've never made it out of the original design committee.

  • Citytide

    When can we all agree, completely regardless of this memorial, that Frank Gehry sucks?

  • jimjim421

    Frank Gehry is a great designer that continues to stretch the way we look at architecture. That kind of innovation is something we need to get us out of the idea that memorials must be marble temples and giant statues. If you want classical design, go back to the classical era.

    Steve, as for you assessment that Gehry can only "do one thing: that wavy sheets thing", he's clearly proven you wrong with this design. His concept here is completely different than any of his most famous buildings for which he is best known.

    Is his design great? Mediocre? Horrendous? As comments have shown, that seems to be in the eye of the beholder. I think it's appropriate to depict Eisenhower's humble beginnings as a way of understanding what shaped him as the leader he became. The execution of this story into the final design (or at least in this case, the conceptual design), is not all Gehry's doing, though. He works for clients,the National Capital Planning Commission, the Eisenhower Memorial Commission and the National Park Service, each of whom have a responsibility to articulate their expectations. However, I must say that I've never seen a committee driven design of any note and originality...and I don't think we need congressmen and others interjecting their own lack of design vision to the mix.

    In the end, the designer must be given a certain amount of artistic license and freedom to create. He may not get full autonomy--clients should still serve as guide posts--but he must be allowed to do his job.

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