The tangled tale of the proposed Eisenhower Memorial next to the National Mall in Washington gets more complicated by the week. On April 3, the National Capital Planning Commission stunned just about everybody by rejecting the memorial design submitted by “celebrity architect” Frank Gehry and approved by the Eisenhower Memorial Commission. In a humiliating proviso, the NCPC—sorry about the acronyms but this is Washington—told Gehry and his associates to return to the commission every two months so it could make sure they are modifying the design in acceptable ways. Frank Gehry has just been given a babysitter.
The NCPC’s disapproval isn’t just bad news for the Eisenhower Memorial Commission. It may be bad news for anyone who wants to see Dwight Eisenhower appropriately memorialized in the nation’s capital, for it extends a process that is increasingly pointless. We should just put it plainly: Gehry’s design will not be built. But no one in authority wants to say so out loud, largely out of fear of offending one another. The question now is what will replace it—a better design, or nothing at all?
The Eisenhower commission hired Gehry five years ago, swooning over what is inevitably called his “innovative” design. Since then the commission has spent $44 million producing surveys and drawings and other preliminary materials. The National Park Service backs the plan, and so does the Commission on Fine Arts, still another body charged with reviewing the project. Most others, however, have been less enthusiastic. The Eisenhower family opposes Gehry’s design, along with editorialists at publications ranging from National Review to the New Yorker. Even more ominously, a growing band of House Republicans opposes it too.
In January the House struck the memorial’s construction funds from the federal budget and reduced the commission’s annual appropriation from the requested $51 million to $1 million—barely enough to pay the electric bill and tip the cleaning lady. The loss of Republican support leaves Gehry and the commission without a significant political constituency. The Obama administration has shown little interest in the project; indeed, its one appointment to the commission, the art historian Bruce Cole, is a vocal opponent of Gehry’s plan. And Democrats on Capitol Hill see no reason to waste energy rescuing an expensive tribute to a Republican president.
As a consequence, the approval process, with its continuing back and forth and layer upon layer of endless revisions, has taken on a dreamlike quality. The NCPC says it wants “a modern and innovative approach” to the memorial. But its specific objections could be crippling to Gehry’s concept. The NCPC statement singled out the most innovative element in a design fairly screaming with innovation: a series of chimney-like columns, 10 feet in diameter and 80 feet high, that will support huge steel-mesh screens suspended along three sides of a memorial square. One of them stretches 447 feet—half again longer than a football field. The screens will show misty scenes of the Midwestern prairie that nourished Ike as a youth and that he escaped as quickly as he could. The NCPC says the screens and other Gehry-like quirks confuse the flow of car and foot traffic and obscure the view of the Capitol a quarter mile away. It worries too about the durability and maintenance of the screens once they’re downsized.
The worries are well-placed. Like most celebrity architects, Gehry is a big-concept man, fuzzy on the practical details that ordinary people will encounter when they put his big concepts into action. A favorite example of Gehry’s obliviousness—a nicer word than “arrogance”—is his Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles. It was showy in the Gehry manner, serving less as a place for human beings to gather than a hulking testimonial to the architect’s cleverness. In this instance as in others, Gehry’s cleverness was severely limited by its interaction with reality. Sheathed in stainless steel, the building reflected sunlight so intensely that it baked neighboring condominiums and blinded passing drivers. Gehry was surprised but accepted no responsibility. Who knew sunlight could be so bright? In the summertime? In Los Angeles?