A long-distance appraisal is rarely advised, but in the case of architect Frank Gehry’s proposed Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, D.C., an exception is warranted.
The controversial project has been simmering for years, and I’ve never been won over by Gehry’s overscaled and overwrought scheme. At its lamest, Gehry’s plan tries too literally to honor Dwight D. Eisenhower’s path from Kansas boyhood to World War II to the White House. And though often criticized as too modern for its subject, its assemblage of parts strikes me as not nearly modern enough. The plan’s dominant feature incorporates a series of pictorial metal tapestries held up by 80-foot stone columns and lining three sides of a landscaped plaza.
Yet it was jolting to read a recent update, by Justin Shubow in Roll Call, that pronounced Gehry’s plan to be as good as dead. Congress recently denied $49 million in construction funds requested by the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, and future funding is much in doubt. The commission’s plan to raise $35 million in private funds is far off target, Shubow reported. Congress asked the commission to work more closely with the Eisenhower family, whose members at first were split, then united against Gehry’s proposal.
What really galls is why, in the face of resounding opposition, it has taken so long to pull the plug and start working toward another plan.
In November, members of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts were still challenging the Gehry plan. It “raised strong concerns about the lack of conceptual clarity in the site design.” The commission last week reviewed Gehry’s proposed changes, most of which had to do with landscaping the four-acre site. This comes nearly four years after Gehry’s design was unveiled, and about 15 years after memorial planning began.
Another body tasked with approving the memorial design, the National Capital Planning Commission, in April will review engineering studies of the Gehry plan’s materials, which reveal potentially costly maintenance down the road.
Kudos to Shubow and his organization, the National Civic Art Society, for discovering through a Freedom of Information Act request “that the National Park Service estimates that six tapestry panels will need to be replaced every five years. In addition, about 750 support cables will need to be replaced every 25 years, and a third of those cables are 444 feet long each. The artwork and very structural armature will crumble if not periodically replaced – and at extraordinary expense.”
Hundreds of pages of documents have now been posted on the National Capital Planning Commission’s website.
The future of the Gehry plan might be in further doubt after President Obama’s appointment six months ago of Bruce Cole to the Eisenhower Commission. Cole, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, has been an outspoken critic of the Gehry scheme. In an article last year for the Weekly Standard, Cole called Gehry’s project “incoherent” and recommended a reset and a new competition to replace it.
All of this amounts to a welcome discussion about what a monument ought to be: a statue, an abstraction, something that can appeal to both heart and mind?
Gehry, now 85, is the mastermind behind numerous sculptural wonders of the world. But beating up on him has become an architectural sport.
It’s sad that this worthy Eisenhower memorial project has become such a prolonged Washington circus. It’s time to reboot.