Only in Washington: After 12 years of study and millions of dollars spent, a congressionally appointed commission has yet to break ground on the National Mall for a memorial to President Dwight David Eisenhower. The memorial, which could cost American taxpayers up to $142 million—yes, you read that correctly—is now embroiled in controversy over the appropriateness of starchitect Frank Gehry’s ambitious design.
Most presidential memorials are modest, limited to life-sized statues, columns, friezes, and tombs; many presidents are memorialized only by their headstones. This type of unostentatious memorialization mirrors the nature of the office. American presidents are elected chief executives with powers lent only temporarily by their peers: “the first among equals.” They are remembered as citizens, and their memorials are strikingly different from those built for European monarchs, which glorify hereditary aristocracy, privilege, and absolute power.
The presidential memorials in Washington, befitting their location in the nation’s capital, are of a different order. They are national commemorations designed for mass visitation by tourists and so more capacious and theatrical than their counterparts outside the Beltway.
The Lincoln and Jefferson memorials on the Mall are civic shrines which engender emotion through architectural form and space; each marshals these elements to create awe and gravitas, and each revolves around a monumental statue of the president, seen in full only after visitors ascend a series of stairs and pass through a screen of columns.
Both memorials employ the vocabulary of classical architecture also used for federal buildings, including the Capitol, the White House, and the Treasury, to produce a permanence, stability, and confidence evoked by the style’s origin in ancient Greece and Rome.
The Jefferson and Lincoln memorials are self-explanatory. The visitor leaves them inspired, enlightened, instructed, and moved; they evoke greatness.
But these are not hallmarks of Frank Gehry, who made his reputation, and fortune, on unstable, disorienting, and unfocused architecture. His architectural philosophy is summed up in his claim, “Life is chaotic, dangerous, and surprising. Buildings should reflect that.”
As Gehry tells it, he was in Washington, “walking around looking at the memorials and thinking there has got to be a better way to do this.” Really? One wonders how many Americans agree that Gehry’s way is better.
While his plan borrows superficially from the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials—it includes columns, statues, and texts of speeches—it is unintelligible. Spread over four acres, the monument by its very size produces confusion, architectural preening, and pomposity. It consists of a lot of elements of different shapes, proportions, materials, and sizes, including eight-story-high pillars (purposely misnamed columns in an attempt to forge a connection with the other memorials), trees, engraved words, plinths, multiple statues, and three gargantuan 80-foot-tall aluminum mesh “tapestries” resembling chain link fences.
The Gehry design includes a statue of Eisenhower, shape and size to be determined; the latest version depicts him not as a soldier or as president, but as a cadet, which is perhaps marginally better than the original idea to infantilize him as a barefoot farm boy. It’s alarming that this late in the conceptual design stage, on the eve of final approval and the authorization of millions of dollars ($60 million has already been allocated by Congress, and the Eisenhower Memorial Commission requested an additional $60 million this year and possibly another $20 million next year), so many components of the monument remain vague, including the identity of many of the nine-foot statues.
Unlike the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials, the Gehry plan is so incoherent that the job of elucidating it to visitors must be subcontracted to a profusion of digital interactive displays and recorded “sound wells,” which will be costly, fragile, and of little educational value.
In sum, Gehry’s design is more about his ego than about Ike. It purposely subverts long-held traditions of civic celebration by trivializing Eisenhower’s accomplishments.
For millions, these are still living memory: Ike’s role as supreme commander of the Allied forces that liberated Europe, his stewardship of NATO, and his two terms as president of the United States are part of these people’s own history. But they will not always be with us.