For thousands of years, erecting a monument to a great personage or event has involved creating a structure with a powerful physical as well as symbolic presence. The monument might be architectural, sculptural, or both. But going back to Stonehenge and even further, monumentality has always been essentially a matter of construction.
Frank Gehry’s game is deconstruction. He is known for buildings that look like they’re coming apart, such as his Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, his Ray and Maria Stata Center at MIT, and his Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health (sic) in Las Vegas. Monuments, like great buildings, have always been designed to convey a sense of permanence. Gehry prefers to convey a sense of the precarious.
If only for that reason, for a congressionally chartered commission to hire Gehry to erect a monument to a great American soldier and statesman in the heart of the nation’s capital makes about as much sense as Pope John Paul II commissioning a requiem from the Sex Pistols.
But that is precisely what the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission (EMC) did six years ago after conducting a dubious portfolio-based competition intended to attract trendy designers rather than appropriate designs. Such a competition inevitably tilted the playing field in Gehry’s favor. Moreover, retired business executive Rocco Siciliano, until very recently the EMC’s chair, is a friend of Frank’s who started dropping the architect’s name at the commission’s very first board meeting in 2001. The competition attracted all of 44 entries — a pathetic sum for a national presidential memorial. Just last week, a competition for a new World War I memorial in Washington attracted over 350 designs.
The current plans will insult Ike’s memory with a comic-opera anti-monument to Gehry’s histrionics and the arrogant incompetence of Washington’s political and cultural elites.
Gehry proceeded to devise a gargantuan $142 million theme-park-cum-stage-set memorial. The concept aroused intense opposition in Congress and from the Eisenhower family. Until quite recently, it appeared it was doomed. But Senator Pat Roberts (R., Kan.), who succeeded Siciliano as EMC chair last spring, is mounting an energetic counteroffensive, marshaling boldface names in support of a notoriously unpopular design. (A Washingtonian magazine update posted last month carried this headline: “Everyone still hates the planned Eisenhower Memorial.”) Roberts got a big boost when the Veterans of Foreign Wars adopted a resolution calling on Congress to fund the memorial, as well as encouraging individual donations from VFW members, at its annual convention earlier this month. But if the senator manages to ram the design down the public’s throat, he will insult Ike’s memory by erecting a comic-opera anti-monument to Gehry’s histrionics and the arrogant incompetence of Washington’s political and cultural elites.
Make no mistake, the celebrity architect is proposing something very, very different from Maya Lin’s unconventional but also understated and clearly focused Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The proposed Ike memorial would be situated on what is presently four acres of urban-renewal wasteland across Independence Avenue from the National Air and Space Museum and the Mall. In its current, slightly downsized iteration, Gehry’s design features a bizarre, transparent stainless-steel “tapestry” 447 feet wide — that’s more than twice the breadth of the Lincoln Memorial — with a photographically derived rural scene depicting Eisenhower’s native Kansas. Pegged to six stone-clad cylindrical posts 80 feet tall, it would serve as the theatrical backdrop to a kitschy sculptural diorama featuring a bronze statue of a youthful Ike perched on a wall and looking out toward a plaza with statuary groups including him as D-Day commander and president. Backed by scenographic reliefs, the statuary groups would be framed by skewed lithic slabs suggestive of ruins, while the plaza would be situated within a Kansas-themed landscape.
This sprawling theme-park memorial would make the worst of its undeniably difficult site. Through its placement in front of the long, stark façade of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Department of Education building, Gehry’s humongous metallic tableau would effectively landmark that brutalist eyesore. (Moreover, to judge by a recent perspective image, the effect of the “tapestry” would be degraded by the distracting grid pattern of seams connecting its openwork panels and the unsightly grid of dark Johnson-building windows behind it.) The memorial also would permanently eliminate a key two-block stretch of Maryland Avenue, Pennsylvania Avenue’s southerly counterpart in Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s great Washington plan of 1791, while preventing construction of new buildings that might provide a suitable architectural frame for a spatially and symbolically compact Eisenhower monument.
At each of the memorial’s front corners, another 80-foot-tall post would stand. Why? Because the memorial is also conceived as an enormous open-air, deconstructed temple — a kind of ruin. Cutting-edge postmodern though he is, Gehry has inherited Romanticism’s ruins fetish. How, one might ask, does indulging that fetish serve Ike’s memory?
In June the House and Senate Appropriations Committees both denied construction funds for the Ike memorial in their 2016 budget bills. The House Appropriations Committee also zeroed out funding for EMC operations and called for a new memorial competition and a new EMC staff.
But then Washington’s clueless official review boards, the Commission of Fine Arts and National Capital Planning Commission, gave Gehry’s design final approval, the New York Times and Washington Post weighed in with supportive editorials, and Roberts enlisted the vociferous support of his fellow Kansas Republican, former Senate majority leader Bob Dole, while adding former NBC Nightly News anchor and The Greatest Generation author Tom Brokaw to his advisory committee.
Saying no to a major veterans’ organization is a tall order, but Congress needs to put an end to this fiasco.
Like Dole, Roberts is a member of Washington’s permanent establishment, having served as a Capitol Hill staffer, congressman, and senator over nearly 50 years. Not only is he seeking funding for the memorial in an omnibus bill, he is trying to recover a waiver that would allow the EMC to commence construction of the memorial before all the necessary funds are in hand, thereby presenting the public with a fait accompli. That is the present danger.
Dole recently reprised the EMC’s argument that because the Greatest Generation’s ranks are quickly dwindling, the Ike memorial needs to get built now. “This is not being built for the grandchildren,” the 92-year-old Dole, who was gravely wounded in Italy during World War II, told the New York Times. “The voice that hasn’t been listened to is us guys for whom Ike was our hero, and we’d like to be around for the dedication.” But there already is a World War II memorial on the Mall, and monuments have always been built for the grandchildren — and their grandchildren. Unfortunately, Dole’s message, which ignores the rank inappropriateness of Gehry’s design, appears to have resonated with the VFW.
Saying no to a major veterans’ organization is a tall order. But Congress needs to put an end to this fiasco at its earliest opportunity. Over $40 million in taxpayer funds have been squandered on a memorial project that’s been botched from the git-go — by the EMC, by its collaborators at the General Services Administration, and by its facilitators at the review boards. To prevent much more money from being wasted, Congress should follow the House Appropriations Committee’s lead, fire the EMC staff, and call for a new, fair competition so Ike can get the memorial he deserves.