The Eisenhower Memorial: Keeping Score
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:
GIVE GEHRY A CHANCE
- 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.
GEHRY'S A HACK
- 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.