The Corner

Re: Memorial to Waste

To add a thought to Mona’s observations on the proposed Eisenhower memorial in Washington: As I’ve written before, I like Ike, and I like Frank Gehry, too. Eisenhower is my favorite modern president and, thanks to what I like to call the “Occupy discount,” I live in a Gehry-designed building in Manhattan’s financial district. But: Dwight Eisenhower and Frank Gehry do not go together. Not at all.

Not even a little bit.

In fact, as the endless operatic clown show at the World Trade Center is proving, having Frank Gehry design any sort of memorial is a terrible idea, for much the same reason that it would be a bad idea to ask Tom Wolfe or Hunter S. Thompson to write a child’s obituary or Andy Warhol to decorate the interior of a church: He doesn’t really do somber, for one thing; for another, a memorial is supposed to be about its subject, but Gehry’s architecture is about itself, if it is “about” anything. You end up getting a Gehry monument, not an Eisenhower monument. He is essentially a sculptor who works in the medium of buildings, which gives him an out on the issue of content and allows him to concentrate on pursuing his beloved geometric abstractions. He’d be a terrific architect to design a bunch more buildings on the campus of MIT (a far better choice than the tile-happy I. M. Pei, whose vitreous sheen has disfigured so much of that campus) but it takes a special kind of fool to ask Frank Gehry to design an Eisenhower memorial or a 9/11 memorial.

The problem is that the sort of committees that end up being in charge of these things are composed of professionals from our inward-directed, self-serving cultural institutions, businessmen trying too hard to prove that they are not philistines, and society-set dilettantes, an inevitable outcome of the politics and economics of these projects. Any committee that has Billy Crystal, Jerry Speyer, and Jon Corzine on it is going to produce dopey results. You can bet your whole bankroll on it. (Don’t let Corzine hold the money.) They’re mostly fine people (not Corzine), but put them in a room together and you understand why none of us is as dumb as all of us.

In a sane world, you’d just put James Panero in charge of these things. He’d know what to do about a world-changing president and General of the Army who insisted on being buried in an $80 standard-issue soldier’s coffin.

Eisenhower is a deeply misunderstood president. Evan Thomas makes a very persuasive case that he was a ruthless genius who managed a world on the brink of catastrophic war and anarchy — and did it so successfully that the self-appointed experts and American people at large did not even notice what he was doing.

How you express that in architectural abstraction is a mystery. Why you’d try is a bigger one.


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