After a federal planning board rejected his unpopular design last spring, architect Frank Gehry downsized his proposed national memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower in Washington, D.C. In October, both the planning board and the federal Commission of Fine Arts unwisely approved the modified concept. Around the same time, however, Senators Jerry Moran (R., Kan.) and Jack Reed (D., R.I.) resigned from the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, quite possibly seeing no end, and no upside, to the controversy in which Gehry’s scheme is embroiled. The congressionally chartered EMC, which is responsible for building the memorial, joyfully predicts a 2015 groundbreaking, but such optimism appears unwarranted. And that is all to the good.
Gehry’s design, for a four-acre site across Independence Avenue from the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, previously entailed a gigantic stage set, with a memorial park enclosed on three sides by stainless-steel openwork screens depicting a rural landscape supposedly evocative of Ike’s native Abilene, Kan. The two smaller flanking screens have now been eliminated, but the rear 447-foot-wide screen remains. In front of it, a statue of a youthful Ike casually perches on a wall, looking out toward a central plaza enclosed by two figure groups featuring statues of his future self: Ike as D-Day commander and Ike as president. Instead of the eliminated flanking screens, Gehry now envisions a humongous cylindrical freestanding post — identical to those supporting the rear screen — at each of the memorial’s front corners. Complementing the landscape on the screen, much of the memorial site features Kansas-themed trees, grasses, and even roadside-like swales.
The downsized design still amounts to a totally inappropriate theme park. The surviving screen, whose breadth would be more than double that of the Lincoln Memorial, might now suggest a gigantic high-style highway billboard, if not a drive-in-movie screen. The monstrous size of these elements — the stone-clad posts are themselves 80 feet tall and ten feet in diameter — would set a disastrous precedent for Washington memorials. The screen would also have the perverse effect of landmarking the drab, boxy, brutalist Lyndon Baines Johnson Department of Education Building immediately behind it.
As long as even one screen remains part of the Ike design, congressional funding for construction of the memorial will be hard to come by, as will the support of the Eisenhower family. Gehry has made it clear that, if the rear screen is scrapped, he will abandon the project and take his name off the design. That would leave the landscape on the ground, which, along with the landscape on the screen, is not exactly guaranteed to make “Kansas” lightbulbs flash in the public mind. It would also leave a memorial core with the General and President Eisenhower figure groups situated amid long blocks of stone set at skewed angles. The sculptural mise-en-scène, including the young Ike on the wall, more resembles a photographically derived diorama in a history museum than a monumental composition befitting a presidential memorial.
The best solution — also the most cost-effective one — would be to start over, in spite of the more than $40 million squandered on this project to date, and erect a real monument to Ike. But first we need to understand what monuments are and what they aren’t.
Let’s start with what they aren’t. A longstanding member of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, Alfred Geduldig, gives us a good idea in a recent letter to the Wall Street Journal. “Today’s memorializations are often more complex than those of the past,” Geduldig avers:
An obelisk may be enough to celebrate the Father of our Country, and a seated, brooding figure enough to commemorate freeing the slaves. Their stories are well-told. But for others, we need to educate as well as commemorate, or their remarkable achievements may fade to obscurity. Take FDR: Space is needed to tell young audiences that he brought America through the Great Depression, initiated extraordinary social reforms, and led the nation through World War II. Even more complex is the Eisenhower Memorial, which even Congress mandated should commemorate him both as general and [as] president.
So we need a sprawling memorial narrative of Eisenhower’s achievements, or FDR’s, but not Washington’s or Lincoln’s. But it is largely because the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial do not “educate” that they are monumental. They operate at the symbolic level, not the narrative or documentary level. In a very abstract way at the Washington Monument, figuratively at the Lincoln Memorial, these monuments make their namesakes present, and they do so as an expression of gratitude on the part of the nation that erected them.
#page#Monuments are concerned with the symbolic evocation of the person, ideal, or event they honor. When they drift off into storytelling, they lose their focus. The FDR Memorial sprawls over seven and a half acres and gives us the famous quotation “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” But its granite-walled enclosures (one for each of its namesake’s terms in office), sculptures, and waterfalls fail to vividly convey the moral and physical courage that inspired it. That’s something a true FDR monument might have done. And it would have been enough. What we have instead is a historical theme park.
The Ike design modifies this narrative approach, but it belongs to the same anti-monumental species as the FDR. You can have an appropriately monumental presidential memorial, or you can have a memorial theme park, but you can’t have both. Memorials should not take the place of textbooks, biographies, or documentary films. Nor should we mistake the gigantism of Gehry’s screen and posts for monumentality. As a rule, monumentality is a matter not of bigness but of skillfully orchestrating a complex formal vocabulary grounded in the human scale. And whereas Gehry’s design is picturesque and scenographic, a monument is an essentially structural entity, whether architectural or sculptural, that activates the space around it. Finally, the symbolism employed in traditional monuments is a source of economy totally ignored in Gehry’s Ike design. When it comes to honoring Ike’s roots in the heartland, a traditional monument might simply include the Great Seal of the State of Kansas — with its appealing landscape imagery and fitting motto, Ad astra per aspera — instead of an extravagantly silly menu of themed elements.
Is it really that challenging to commemorate Ike as both general and president, as Geduldig believes? Maybe not. A few hundred yards away from the Ike-memorial site, near the foot of Capitol Hill, stands sculptor J. Q. A. Ward’s and architect Richard Morris Hunt’s fine monument to another general and president, James A. Garfield, consisting of a portrait statue with subordinate allegorical figures and relief insignia testifying to his labors as scholar, soldier, and statesman. Garfield is not a star of the same magnitude as Eisenhower, let alone Washington, nor does his memory shine as brightly as it did 125 years ago. (With all due respect to Geduldig, a memorial cannot prevent that.) But even if fewer people make a point of visiting the Garfield Memorial nowadays, it forms part of the ideal background to the life of our nation’s capital.
The fact remains that the Garfield Memorial’s location — a traffic circle in the vast landscape that is the Mall — is problematic. This monument wasn’t designed to serve as the civic focal point of an urban precinct, and that reinforces its latter-day obscurity. At the other end of the Mall, the Lincoln Memorial, with its grand steps and adjacent Reflecting Pool, is of course a destination in a much more ample sense than the Garfield. Here, after experiencing the monument’s powerful impact, you can relax for a stretch, sit on the marble steps, take in the magnificent view, stroll alongside the Pool, see and be seen. The Lincoln Memorial thus compensates for our national tendency to isolate too many commemorative works in broad expanses of park, as in the case of the FDR and the Garfield.
An appropriate Eisenhower monument will not be as grandly self-sufficient as the Lincoln. To serve as a pleasant as well as an edifying destination for Washingtonians and visitors alike for many years to come — and not just during daylight hours — it needs an architecturally well defined, quintessentially urban public square where people can enjoy a snack or even a meal after admiring it. Instead, planners fret about green space at the Ike site, even though the Mall lies just on the other side of the Air and Space Museum. Hence the review boards’ willingness to reduce Maryland Avenue — the southerly counterpart to Pennsylvania Avenue in L’Enfant’s great 1791 Plan of Washington — to a grassy pedestrian axis at the site: another really bad idea.
Creating an inviting urban setting for an Ike monument at this site while respecting the L’Enfant Plan requires drastic modification or outright demolition of the LBJ Building. If that’s unrealistic, another site should be chosen. Congress should be mindful of the fact that an enormous amount of suppressed real-estate value could be realized through sound mixed-use redevelopment of the forlorn bureaucratic terrain extending south from Independence Avenue between Capitol Hill and I. M. Pei’s abominable and desolate L’Enfant Plaza ten blocks to the west. If a worthy Ike monument serves as the catalyst for such a long-term endeavor, so much the better.
– Mr. Leigh is an art and architecture critic based in Washington, D.C.