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Architect welcomes Ike memorial critique

  • Associated Press
  • Published Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2011, at 12:09 a.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, May 15, 2012, at 5:41 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Renowned architect Frank Gehry explained his design plan for a future Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial to colleagues from the fields of architecture and construction Tuesday evening, saying criticism of its sweeping scale has mostly been fair.

Famous for his striking structures with undulating exteriors, Gehry explained the project honoring the 34th president to the editor of Architectural Record and executives during a dinner at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington.

The design draws on Eisenhower's homecoming speech after World War II when the war hero spoke of a barefoot boy from Kansas who went on to fame in Europe. The design would include large metal tapestries depicting trees and grain silos that evoke "Ike's" home in Kansas. Those tapestries and huge columns designed to uphold them have drawn criticism from some quarters.

"The people are asking good questions," Gehry said of his concept. He added that the project is undergoing a complex but "very intelligent" approval process required for national memorials.

The memorial also would include a landscaped park with other features marking Eisenhower's presidency and war years. It would be built just off the National Mall among buildings linked to Eisenhower's legacy, including the National Air and Space Museum and the U.S. Education Department.

Organizers hope to complete the memorial in 2015 at a cost of $90 million to $110 million.

Susan Eisenhower, the president's granddaughter, recently issued a statement to the Washington Post on behalf of her family, saying they have concerns about the "concept for the memorial, as well as the scope and scale." It did not note any specific objections.

"We feel that now is the time to get these elements right — before any final design approvals are given and before any ground is broken," the statement read.

Eisenhower's grandchildren have requested a meeting with Gehry and officials from the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, said Dan Feil, the executive architect managing the project. David Eisenhower, the president's grandson, is a member of the commission.

"They need to be involved, and we're trying to do that," Feil said, adding that such a meeting won't necessarily affect the memorial's timeline. "They want time to participate in some of the discussions."

The 80-foot-tall columns, measuring 11 feet in diameter, have been the main point of contention. One member of the National Capital Planning Commission called them "gargantuan."

Gehry's selection of Kansas imagery for the tapestries also has been questioned.

Architect John Hart, who represents Maryland on the commission, has said earlier that he didn't see enough of Eisenhower in the design. "I'm not seeing the celebration of the man ... in the depiction of a rural landscape," he said.

Gehry said Tuesday evening that his idea was to build a tapestry as in generations past that evokes Eisenhower. The architect said he traveled in the United States and as far away as Japan to learn how to accomplish that. "And I didn't have a plan B," Gehry told his audience.

His goal, he said, is to capture the story of "Ike."

"He was a very modest guy — but tough," Gehry said. "And he did great things for this country. I didn't know it when he was president."

After leading the Allied forces in Europe in World War II, Eisenhower went back to Abilene, a place that he loved and that formed his character, Gehry added.

"He didn't beat his chest and say 'I won the war,'" Gehry noted.

The design will evolve before a Dec. 1 meeting of the commission when organizers plan to seek preliminary approval of Gehry's design, Feil said.

Another federal panel, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, has commented favorably on Gehry's design and supported the concept.

The memorial would follow a monument to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., which on Sunday became the first memorial honoring a black leader to be dedicated on the National Mall. The Eisenhower Memorial would be the first to a president since the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial opened in 1997.

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