The controversial proposal for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial now has a new component: a smartphone app, which, according to the memorial’s designers, visitors will be able to use on-site to “contextualize Eisenhower’s impact” and view historical and biographical content. Postmodern “starchitect” Frank Gehry’s plans for the monument have been mired in controversy since they were unveiled. And while the impulse to harness cutting-edge technology is admirable, the need for a supplementary “E- Memorial” highlights exactly what is wrong with the design: The physical monument does not reflect the man it purports to commemorate.
The $142 million proposal calls for ten colossal, unadorned 80-foot-tall, 11-foot-wide columns to support the monument’s most striking feature: vast woven metal billboards, enclosing the four acre site and bearing images of the Kansas landscape. These partitions would frame a central depiction of Eisenhower as a cadet (an improvement, perhaps, on the original plan to portray him as a young boy), flanked by stacked megaliths at odd angles and two other portraits.
The plans have met with fierce resistance from critics, not least from the Eisenhowers themselves. In Susan Eisenhower’s congressional testimony on the proposal, the late president’s granddaughter compared the steel screens to an “iron curtain” and the 80-foot columns to missile silos. Susan and her sister Anne also apprehended the design’s most fundamental flaw: Its grandest components do not form any coherent narrative or theme related to Eisenhower’s contributions to the nation and the world.
Which, presumably, is where the smartphone app comes in. The Eisenhower Memorial Commission announced that this app will “enhance” and “interpret” the physical memorial by supplementing the monoliths and metal screens with virtual historical content on visitors’ iPhones and Androids. According to the Commission, the app lets its users at the site enter an “augmented reality,” “thereby truly demonstrating why [Eisenhower] requires a memorial.”
The app (if it is not out of date in a matter of years) could be a rich resource for information and media related to Eisenhower’s place in history (and given its $2 million pricetag, one hopes it would). But a monument – especially a monument on the National Mall dedicated to one of America’s most respected presidents – should not require an explanatory smartphone app to “demonstrate why” he deserves such a memorial.
Gehry and those involved with the planning process should give further consideration to the meaning, function, and history of memorials and monuments. In an age before iPhones, architects and artists thought deeply and creatively about how to use physical structures, sites and sculptures to tell powerful stories about exceptional people. In her book, The Invention of the Historic Monument, historian Françoise Choay states that a monument is “any artifact erected by a community of individuals to commemorate or to recall for future generations individuals, events, sacrifices, practices or beliefs.” An alternative definition, given by archaeologist Bruce Trigger, emphasizes instead that it is excessive, unnecessary scale and expense that defines a structure as a monument. Unfortunately, the Eisenhower Memorial, as it is currently planned, fits only the latter definition.
The towering “silos” and hulking steel partitions (the monument’s most expensive feature) do little or nothing to “recall for future generations” the achievements, story and character of Dwight D. Eisenhower, leaving the task of actual commemoration principally to an iPhone app.
President Eisenhower was a man who detested billboards, chrome wheels, modern art, egoism and ostentation. He asked to be buried in a simple $80 pine coffin, wearing no medals except his rank insignia. He was also the last Republican President to balance the budget. Given these facts, it is no small stretch to believe that Eisenhower would have been befuddled by the $142 million Gehry plan (which includes the $2 million app), paid for by the American taxpayers during a period of great economic hardship.
It is time for the Memorial Commission to go back to the drawing board and come up with a design that speaks for itself: a monument that emphasizes commemoration over scale and narrative over novelty. If this is the best they can offer – a chaotic proposal based around unsightly, towering metal fences, with a smartphone app to fulfill the traditional emotive roles of a memorial – then why bother building the physical monument at all?
Jack Carlson and Eric Wind are members of the board of directors of the National Civic Art Society.