Last week, Frank Gehry — who most agree is a fine architect — consented to revise his design for an Eisenhower Memorial, which everyone agrees was hideous and stupid. As NR reported in 2012, the original plans called “for Ike to be memorialized in sculpture as a barefoot farm boy on the Great Plains” surrounded by “80-foot-tall, nondescript cylindrical posts . . . holding up perforated metal ‘tapestries.’” Adding injury to insult, it has already cost $63 million, though ground hasn’t been broken.
This isn’t our first national struggle with a bad memorial. FDR did everything he could to hide his wheelchair, but his memorial shows him wheelchair-bound. In 2005, David Gelernter, my father, wrote in The Weekly Standard that he looked forward to “the moment when some brave politician would stand in front of the Vietnam memorial (a black slab in a pit) and say, ‘Tear down this wall! Remove it from its symbolic grave and rebuild it above ground, and for God’s sake add some words of tribute and thanks.’” Further down the Mall, the Second World War memorial straddles the line between brutalism and Albert Speer brutalism. Though I like the fountain. The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial is vulgar in the extreme — King is chiseled out of a monolith; instead of looking like a reverend idealist, he sneers downwards like a Soviet dictator regarding his great works. A braggadocious, and misquoted, inscription read, “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness,” before it was removed last year.
To be fair, memorials are a tricky business. Especially when you start to stray from the neoclassic Lincoln–Jefferson style. This week, another September 11 passed. New York’s annual commemoration of the September 11 attacks is melodrama; the names of the murdered New Yorkers are read over a background of sad music. It’s a little crass, but it’s nothing compared with the self-indulgence of the actual memorial: two giant, be-fountained holes in the ground. Like politicians competing to be the most indignant about a public outrage, or drama students determined to show how affected they were by an art movie, New York’s powers that be decided to revel in their self-important self-pity. Maybe I’m out of line; I’m sure lots and lots of people will think I am. To me, the whole thing seems insincere. A boondoggle vanity project; the trappings and the suits of woe.
To say nothing of the fact that if you’d asked one of the hijackers, back in 2001, what he hoped to see at the World Trade Center ten or twenty years down the line, two giant holes in the ground would have been near the top of his list. San Francisco didn’t commemorate the earthquake by preserving the city’s empty foundations, and England didn’t remember the blitz by leaving London as a big pile of rubble. The right response to losing the Twin Towers wasn’t keeping their footprints empty, it was building new, taller, better towers. I like the new Freedom Tower, but I’d like it more if it were Freedom Tower 1 of 3. I would like to see New York return to having the tallest buildings in the world, built on top of the 9/11 depression pools. In their lobbies, I’d like to see a decorous plaque dedicating the tallest buildings in the world to the men and women who were murdered for working inside towering symbols of freedom and industry. I’d like to see the plaque remind everyone that freedom and industry always bounce back, that freedom and industry don’t wallow. For a long time, the Soviets kept East Berlin as a city of blown-up and burned-out buildings; the Allies rebuilt West Berlin and turned it into a thriving metropolis. I’d like someone to say, “Mr. de Blasio, fill up those holes.”
— Josh Gelernter writes weekly for NRO and is a regular contributor to The Weekly Standard.