Back in 2004, the National Gallery of Art hosted a scholarly symposium to explore the wonders of its East Building, which earlier that year the American Institute of Architects had honored with a Twenty-Five-Year Award, for being a building that had stood the test of time. Or had it?
The schematically non-orthogonal geometries of I. M. Pei’s East Building are decidedly unpopular by comparison with the harmonious form and detail of John Russell Pope’s West Building, completed in 1941. More to the point, by the time the gallery published the proceedings of the academic powwow in a lavishly illustrated volume, the East Building was experiencing a major structural failure. The marble cladding system Pei designed — the illustrious architect had once proclaimed it “a technological breakthrough for the construction of masonry walls” — was buckling, with two-by-five-foot marble panels tilting out as their anchors came unstuck from the building’s load-bearing concrete frame. Now all 16,200 marble panels are being reinstalled, at a cost of $85 million.
Who’s footing the bill? You are, dear reader, in your cherished capacity as a U.S. taxpayer.
Predictably, devotees of cutting-edge architecture have preferred to ignore the lessons of Pei’s failure. Some are now singing the praises of Frank Gehry’s even more unpopular design for an oversized, unfocused, and very expensive memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower, to be erected a stone’s throw from Washington’s Mall. But the Gehry scheme, and the competition process by which he won the commission, are being questioned by a handful of congressmen, including Darrell E. Issa (R., Calif.), the powerful chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. One of Ike’s granddaughters, Susan Eisenhower, meanwhile has emerged as the public face of opposition to the design.
The “technological breakthrough” in Gehry’s memorial design consists of gargantuan, billboard-like metallic scrims, most likely to be fabricated in a translucent pattern showing photograph-based representations of the rural Kansas landscape of Ike’s childhood. Elevated 20 feet above ground level, these scrims will hang from towering cylindrical shafts, 80 feet tall and 11 feet in diameter. The ten shafts will be clad in limestone. At least 80 percent of the four-acre memorial’s extravagant $142 million price tag will be covered by taxpayers. And so, of course, will the cost of the scrims’ maintenance or repair, the need for which will arise from guano smudges and windblown trash and dirt or, quite possibly, more serious problems involving structural deterioration.
Not that you should worry about that. Gehry is rigorously testing his scrims’ metallic fabric, whose vertical warp of widely spaced stainless-steel wires is welded to a textured weft of stainless-steel cables — just as Pei tested a mock-up of his brave new wall system. Forget about the Stata Center, the “$300 million fixer-upper,” as a Boston Globe columnist dubbed Gehry’s quirky, leaky computer-science building at MIT, where multiple mishaps led to a lawsuit against the starchitect that was settled out of court. Forget about the piles of snow and ice rolling off Gehry’s business-school building at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, or the hundreds of reflective cladding panels that had to be sanded down at his Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles to relieve the acute thermal discomfort of people living nearby.
As long as he’s not being paid with your tax dollars, that is. Frank Gehry is, after all, an experimental architect. His histrionic, quasi-sculptural deconstructivism represents a viral reaction against the postwar epidemic of functionalist boxes littering city and suburb alike, not only in the United States but the world over.
It so happens that this epidemic of visual sterility manifested itself most conspicuously, so far as our nation’s capital is concerned, in the vicinity of Gehry’s proposed Ike memorial. We’re talking about a veritable wasteland — ugly federal office buildings, a tangle of freeways, railway tracks running along the rights-of-way of what should be Maryland and Virginia Avenues — in Washington’s southwest quadrant, a forlorn district that is mainly the creation of misguided midcentury redevelopment under the banner of “urban renewal.” The wasteland extends right up to the south side of Independence Avenue, which is lined with bureaucrat-container-boxes for the Departments of Education, Transportation, Energy, and Health and Human Services, along with the Voice of America’s moderne Wilbur J. Cohen Building — a somewhat less depressingly simplistic structure.
Before Gehry’s involvement with the project, the congressionally chartered Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission (EMC) decided to consolidate the drab forecourt and rather messy streetscape in front of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Department of Education Building into a bloated, urban-renewal-scale memorial site. Bad idea.
The site lies between the Johnson Building to its south and Independence Avenue. A portion of Maryland Avenue that currently merges with Independence in front of the Johnson Building will be eliminated. The longest of Gehry’s stainless-steel “tapestries” will filter rather than block views of the relentlessly dull, rectilinear Johnson Building, whose front spans two full blocks across the avenue from the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. The two shorter metal scrims, set perpendicular to the Johnson Building, will define the Eisenhower Memorial precinct. The Maryland Avenue right-of-way, which is situated on a diagonal axis with the Capitol building, will be planted with grass. Trees will frame northeasterly views of the Capitol.
A memorial to a great American military commander and statesman such as Ike should be monumental. It should be imposing in its structural and anthropomorphic character, whether it be a sculptural or an architectural creation, or both. A good statue or relief sculpture would convey a sense of the anatomical structure beneath the figure’s clothing instead of settling for a photographic likeness. Whether abstract or figurative, a monument to Ike should have a powerful, magnetic presence. Its effect should be direct, inspirational, and immune to factoidal trivialization masquerading as historical “interpretation.”
Gehry, now 83, hasn’t designed a monument. He has designed a stage set decked out with sculptural and landscape elements and a bevy of inscriptions. Against the quasi-photographic backdrop of leafless sycamore trees and farm buildings provided by the scrims, the current design concept includes a statue of Ike as a military cadet — substituted for a statue of Ike as a barefoot farmboy, to mollify the Eisenhower family and other critics — looking out into the memorial space, with its photo-derived sculpture groups of Ike exhorting troops on D-day and, after his two-term presidency, examining a globe. The statuary will be situated amid lithic piles that might or might not be intended to evoke ruins.