Last week the chairman of the House administration committee, Dan Lungren of California, sent a letter to the National Capital Planning Commission, one of the many administrative bodies charged with safeguarding Washington’s “memorial core.” Lungren’s tone was polite but firm. Soon the commission will decide whether to approve a design, concocted by the très chic architect Frank Gehry, for a memorial to Dwight Eisenhower in the nation’s capital. “The memorial, as currently envisioned,” Lungren and a colleague wrote, “does not adequately commemorate [Eisenhower’s] accomplishments nor does it enjoy the necessary level of support to be accepted as a national tribute to General and President Eisenhower.” Lungren is a powerful chairman with some say over $100 million in taxpayer money being spent on the memorial, and reading the letter we liked to think that we detected beneath the good manners the slightest undercurrent of menace: “Gee, that’s a nice appropriation you got there. Hate to see something happen to it.” Perhaps our imagination was overheating again. But we can hope.
For without some kind of serious intervention, by Congress or an outraged public, Gehry’s appalling design will become a reality, rising unpleasantly at the foot of Capitol Hill, adjacent to the National Mall, for years to come. How appalling is it? For a clue, consider the rave review it received in an unintentionally comical notice from the (always unintentionally comical) art critic for the Washington Post. He praised Gehry for de-emphasizing the “masculine power” that has traditionally marred Washington’s memorial architecture. (And you thought the Washington monument was just an obelisk?) Gehry, the critic discovered, “has ‘re-gendered’ the vocabulary of memorialization, giving it new life and vitality.” A re-gendered Ike! Don’t anyone tell Mamie.
Gehry is a clever fellow—along with guile, cleverness is his most conspicuous gift—and his design, after a fashion, is improbably ingenious, which is to say that it manages to be at once grandiose and pointless, offensive and vague, pretentious and kitschy. It’s hard to describe because it’s hard to decide what it is, precisely. The plan calls for closing down a span of Maryland Avenue in Southwest D.C., one of the original spokes in L’Enfant’s grand scheme of crisscrossing streets and avenues, and laying out a four-acre public square in its place. Is the square itself the memorial, or does it merely contain the memorial? Hard to say. Two sides of the square will be defined by a series of unadorned columns. These aren’t any of those fussy old classical columns, the kind with a base and a shaft and a capital like you see holding up the roof in those other fuddy-duddy memorials on the National Mall. These are Gehry columns, plain shafts rising 80 feet high, which, as visitors will discover, is very high. Unexpectedly and refreshingly, given the purposeless elaboration in most of Gehry’s work, the columns do serve a function. Unfortunately their function is to hoist between them giant screens of metal mesh depicting winter scenes of Kansas prairie.
“As Eisenhower did,” say the publicity materials too cutely, the wire mesh screens with their forbidding images of bare trees and lonesome farmhouses “bring a bit of the heartland to our nation’s capital.”
But what about Eisenhower? Good of you to ask. He will be there, too, depicted in a diminutive statue as a “barefoot farm boy.” This will serve to illustrate a point that Gehry and his supporters find unusually compelling, for some reason—that the man who did as much as any other to save Western civilization at its moment of maximum peril got his start wearing overalls on a farm. The statue of little Eisenhower, this Ike tyke, will be casting a plaintive gaze at twin bas reliefs of his older self, as both president and general, mounted on two enormous stone boxes. Quotations from two of Eisenhower’s speeches will be carved back there somewhere too. And trees. The design calls for trees.
Among the many articulations of horror at Gehry’s handiwork, the most poignant come from Eisen-hower’s son and grandchildren. David Eisenhower recently resigned in disgust from the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, which recruited Gehry and approved his design. In a recent letter, the family said they are puzzled at the design’s emphasis on Eisenhower’s early life over his years as general and president, which were, after all, the proving ground of his greatness and the reason he deserves a memorial. They question the durability of Gehry’s gimmicks—the big wire screens and an inevitable array of hard-to-maintain and soon-to-be-obsolete “interactive technology” for children of all ages. (The devices are in keeping with the current requirement that any public work involving history be relentlessly pedagogical rather than celebratory or commemorative.) It doesn’t take an overheated imagination to see what will likely become of Gehry’s square 10 or 15 years hence: an acre here or there under repair and cordoned off by cyclone fencing, leaves tumbling across the empty plaza and gathering in remote corners, interactive displays broken and untended, and a handful of puzzled tourists wondering what they’re supposed to be looking at. This is not a memorial for the ages.
Indeed, as the family points out, it’s not really a memorial at all. But it is many other things. It’s an advertisement for the self-conscious quirkiness of an overpraised architect and a shrine to the pathetic intellectual insecurity of the commission that hired him. It’s a testimony to postmodernism’s ability to corrupt everything it touches. It’s an expression of the contempt one class of people feels for another far larger but less powerful class of people.
Listen again to the Post’s critic in his rave review: “The effect will be that of a giant stage set enveloping a relatively small representation of Eisenhower, yet another inversion of traditional hierarchies that suggests a powerful sense of the finitude of man and the vastness of history, nature, and fate.”
And here are the Eisenhowers, from their recent letter: “Great monuments to our leaders are simple in design and made of durable stone for a reason. This memorial must speak to the ages and last just as long.”
We side with the Eisenhowers. The National Capital Planning Commission should too.