Senator Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) says that, if the controversy over the proposed Eisenhower Memorial in Washington isn’t quickly resolved in favor of postmodern icon Frank Gehry’s design, “we’ll see another decade go by without an Eisenhower memorial.”
To which one has to reply, with all respect: “Why is that the issue here?”
George Washington died in 1799. The Washington Monument was not finished until 1884, 85 years after the first president’s death and more than 100 years after his greatest service to the nascent republic during the American Revolution.
Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the Virginia statute on religious freedom in 1777. The Jefferson Memorial, which includes excerpts from those two great Jeffersonian contributions to our national life, was dedicated in 1943: almost a century and a quarter after Jefferson’s death in 1826 and more than a century and a half after Jefferson’s quill first recorded the words that now appear on his memorial’s interior walls.
As for what many regard as the greatest of national presidential monuments, the Lincoln Memorial, it was dedicated in 1922, 57 years after the Emancipator’s death at the hands of John Wilkes Booth.
Dwight D. Eisenhower died on March 28, 1969. Senator Roberts’s congressional colleagues and his fellow Kansans (among whom the Eisenhower Memorial Commission is trying to drum up support for the Gehry design) might well ask, “Why the rush?” Why not get the Eisenhower memorial right, even if doing so means that it wouldn’t be dedicated until after 2020 — which, in any case, is a mere 51 years after Ike’s death?
The answer to “why the rush” is no great mystery. The rush is on because awarding this important commission to Frank Gehry has virtually no support outside two groups that ought not be imagined to have infallible judgment in these matters, but who have had, to date, significant political (that is, financial) control over the Eisenhower Memorial project: the hyper-modernist and postmodernist architectural elites who have made such a hash of American civic art, on the one hand, and, on the other, those laymen they have somehow convinced that steel-mesh scrims supported by 80-foot-tall columns reminiscent of Stonehenge constitute a fitting public tribute to the supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, the founding commander of NATO, and the highly successful 34th president of the United States.
Senator Roberts has also confessed to a certain weariness over this controversy, a sentiment that is not misplaced. For the entire Eisenhower Memorial process has been deeply flawed, and thus highly contentious, from the moment Congress authorized the memorial in 1999 and created a bipartisan Eisenhower Memorial Commission composed of four members each of the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives and four presidential appointees.
The Commission’s approach to the competition that would produce a design for the Eisenhower Memorial was, to put it gently, undemocratic and opaque. The competition was open only to licensed architects with portfolios; no amateurs, students, sculptors, or other interested parties need apply; licensed architects just getting started in their careers had no chance. Moreover, the competition was one among designers, not designs — the very opposite of a blind review that judged detailed proposals on their merits. At no point in the competition was an entrant required to submit an actual proposal. The emphasis was on portfolio and reputation, which skewed the process toward elite (which is to say, postmodern) architects whose glittering reputations were created in no small part by elitist, postmodern critics.
As for opacity, the public does not know even today the identities of the vast majority of the entrants. Nor has the public seen Frank Gehry’s submission to the commission, including his statement of design philosophy, his explanation (if there was any) of his prior work’s design flaws and cost overruns, and his response to the lawsuit against him filed by MIT because of such problems. Nor has the public been told why the Eisenhower Memorial Commission sent competition invitations to 33 pre-selected architects, most of whose names remain as unknown as the reasons they received such special treatment. That Gehry was selected as the architect of the Eisenhower Memorial under these circumstances has raised reasonable suspicions that the outcome of this alleged “competition” was largely predetermined.