You don’t have to be an Eisenhower Memorial groupie—yes, there are such people—to enjoy a new 56-page congressional report called “A Five-Star Folly.” But it helps. The mound of detail will bury all but the sturdiest student of what is shaping up to be one of the most memorable Washington fiascoes of our young century. A blend of incompetence with arrogance, the saga of the memorial is like an Obamacare rollout for architecture buffs and history weenies.
It’s now nearly 15 years since Congress established the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission and told it to think up a tribute to Ike. Since then commissioners have come and gone, among them congressmen, senators, rich folk, and a handful of normal people, assisted by nine staffers. What has remained constant is the commission’s amazing lack of progress. A site for the memorial wasn’t chosen until 2005. It took another four years for the commission to hire a designer—and not just any designer but Frank Gehry, the most fashionable architect of the day. By 2013, Congress had appropriated $65 million for the commission’s work. Finally, last year, while pondering the commission’s request for another $73 million, a few people on Capitol Hill noticed something fishy: The memorial still hadn’t got built. Ground hadn’t even been broken. For that matter, the commission had yet to obtain approval for a final design.
Staffers for the House Natural Resources Committee began investigating, and “A Five-Star Folly” is the devastating result.
At the center of the memorial controversy sits Gehry and the design he came up with. It is best described as Gehryesque—a sprawling city square scattered with stone boxes and life-size statues modeling famous photographs, ringed by stripped-down columns from which hang giant tapestries made of steel mesh. The committee’s report makes clear that Gehry’s fatuous design, and Gehry himself, were just what the commission was looking for. Even before he was hired, the commission’s design protocols called for a memorial that would reflect “a new paradigm for memorials, a new vision of memorialization”; it would “embrace the widest possible range of innovative concepts and ideas.”
It’s not clear why the commissioners insisted on all the paradigms and visions. Eisenhower was notably conservative in his artistic taste and personal style. The explanation is a peculiarly modern one, reflecting trends in both architecture and governance. In Gehry’s design, the true center of attention is the architect rather than Ike. Just so, the commission’s insistence on “innovation” has nothing to do with Eisenhower and everything to do with the preferences and ambitions of the commissioners.
And in true Washington fashion, such arrogance and self-dealing can be made to pay. The committee’s report is a triumph of forensic accounting, tracing the outflow of taxpayer money into the usual pools where Beltway flacks and consultants feed. The commission hired the federal government’s General Services Administration to administer the project, and then the GSA contracted with a subcontractor to administer the project, and that subcontractor contracted with other contractors to provide services, such as web design, that had originally been the responsibility of the commission. This is how you spend $65 million on a construction project before you’ve even fired up the bulldozer.
Gehry of course has joined in the fun. He evidently reasoned that if the commissioners wanted innovation, he was going to give it to them, good and hard. His design, if built, would be uniquely expensive, in both its construction and its maintenance. No one, the report points out, has come up with a plausible plan to service the steel mesh from damage wrought by the elements. Gehry’s initial contract was for $6.6 million. The commission has paid him north of $11 million, thanks to more than 20 “upcharges,” with the emphasis on “up.” He is owed another $3 million, according to the commission. Where it will come from is anybody’s guess. In among the Chinese boxes of the commission’s finances, the report found payments to no fewer than three private fundraising firms, for a total of $1.4 million. They’ve raised less than $500,000 so far.
Gehry and the commission have not reacted well to the report. In a public statement, Gehry defended the upcharges. “I personally have done all my design work pro bono,” he says. But surely money is as fungible at Frank Gehry’s firm as it is elsewhere. He also complained that his expenses had increased owing to the many filings he had to make to various agencies and the number of “mockups” required to test the feasibility of his design, particularly the steel-mesh screens.
Here Gehry is being cheeky. Even a New Paradigmer should expect rigorous testing of any design, if only to protect the taxpayer’s investment, and who could be shocked that a government project involves thickets of bureaucracy? “The cost under the Gehry contract to create ‘mockups,’ ” report the committee’s sleuths, “has thus far increased by 2300 percent.” It’s an impressive achievement, made possible only through the unique collaboration of a spendthrift bureaucracy, a handful of intellectually inert commission members, and an architect-conman consumed by his own vanity.
So there we have it: intellectual pretensions, artistic arrogance, warring tentacles of the federal behemoth, a disregard for the past, a shameful waste of tax money, and nobody—but nobody—stepping up to claim responsibility for the mess. Could there be a better memorial to government in the age of Barack Obama?