After the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts approved a revised design for the Eisenhower memorial last month, a New York Times reporter asked Anne Eisenhower, Ike’s granddaughter, whether the controversial design could now, at long last, get built, despite the objections of her own family and countless other appalled critics.
“There would be one more hurdle,” she said, “and that’s funds—unless [the commissioners] are going to build it themselves.”
Anne Eisenhower, we can suppose, was being sardonic. Wise and learned though they may be, members of the Fine Arts Commission do not give off the burly vibe of a construction crew. (More like a wine-tasting class.) But the burden of her answer is correct. If the gaudy and ridiculous design for the Eisenhower memorial is to spring from the maquette table to its chosen site off the National Mall in downtown Washington, its construction must first be funded by someone. And by someone we mean, of course, the American taxpayer.
The taxpayer is in pretty deep with the Eisenhower memorial already. Since Congress approved the idea of a national tribute to Ike, in 1999, the Eisenhower Memorial Commission has spent at least $44 million. (We say “at least” because nobody, not even congressional investigators, has been able to give a precise accounting of the commission’s finances.) Private fundraising efforts have, amazingly, lost money. And so far not a spadeful of earth has been turned. For the last two years, alarmed congressional Republicans have declined to approve the commission’s request for tens of millions more in construction funds, choosing instead to allocate just enough to keep the commission’s nine staffers off the breadline.
The source of this impasse is the design itself—a signature work of the overpraised architect Frank Gehry, whose whispered name is enough to raise goose pimples from the (wise and learned) hides of postmodernist aesthetes like the Fine Arts commissioners. It’s worth noting that the laborers who are charged with actually building his designs have a rather different reaction, as across the globe one overpriced Gehry creation after another spouts leaks, shows sudden and mysterious stains, and sends loosened objects flying off his innovative surfaces onto innocent passersby. Maybe this accounts for the first stirrings of an overdue anti-Gehry consensus forming among international tastemakers. Facing a hostile question at a press conference in Spain recently, Gehry responded by raising his middle finger. Artists often speak in symbols.
As the bodies charged with approving his design have raised humble, incremental objections, very delicately—nobody wants to get flipped off by a starchitect!—Gehry has made the minimum adjustments necessary. But the design’s essential absurdity remains: a vast urban rectangle dotted at the edges with 80-foot columns and enclosing great marble boxes of mysterious purpose. If anything, the absurdity may have increased with each revision. The too-high columns were silly enough when they served to hoist enormous metal scrims depicting scenes from Ike’s home state of Kansas; now Gehry has eliminated two of the three screens but the columns are still there, standing lonely and functionless, like the ruins of an ancient temple blown up by art critics.
Now that the Fine Arts Commission has joined the National Capital Planning Commission in approving Gehry’s most recent design, the Eisenhower Memorial Commission seems to believe its misbegotten project has gained a new lease on life. And the danger is real. The congressional budget process is a labyrinth (we are not the first to have noticed this) and money for projects long given up for dead can appear mysteriously at every turn, beyond the range of public scrutiny. The House members who have done so much to find an alternative to Gehry’s design—Ken Calvert of California and Rob Bishop of Utah—will have to maintain eternal vigilance. Two seats on the commission, reserved for senators, are now vacant. The incoming Senate majority leader could do his part by filling one of them with an appointee publicly dedicated to creating a more appropriate—that is, less Gehry-like—tribute to Eisenhower.
If their spirits or ardor begin to flag, we suggest opponents on Capitol Hill recall Gehry’s words from that recent press conference in Spain. (He doesn’t always use sign language.)
“Ninety-eight percent of everything that is built today is pure s—,” he opined. “Once in a while, a group of people do something special. Very few, but God, leave us alone.”
At last we agree with Gehry, at least in part. We really should leave him alone. And Congress can start by killing off his design once and for all. And then start over, in a spirit more fitting to the great man we hope to remember.