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.
Rising generations will lack this firsthand historical memory. Surveys and tests prove that such young people, like many of their parents, will know next to nothing about this great American when they visit Washington.
Not only to teach them about Ike, but also to tell them why he is important and worth remembering, is the task of any memorial worthy of his name. In the execution of these tasks, the Gehry proposal fails utterly.
So, instead of spending millions more on the Gehry plan in these days of enormous government debt and expenditures, why not swap pomposity and self-promotion for modesty and restraint, befitting a memorial to Dwight Eisenhower?
The whole project could start over with a truly open and democratic competition with input from the American public as to what design would most suitably honor Eisenhower. It doesn’t matter if a traditionalist architect or one working in a modern style wins. What’s important is to build something worthy of our 34th president.
Or how about the reasonable suggestion of the Eisenhower family for a statue in front of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House? An image of Ike adjacent to the World War II memorial would also make sense. Either could be done for just a fraction of Gehry’s multimillion-dollar fee, let alone the total cost of the memorial.
Until recently, congressional approval for the memorial seemed a sure thing, but after a salvo of national condemnation (Roll Call said it had reached “fever pitch”), including criticism from Ike’s granddaughters Susan and Anne—their brother David resigned from the memorial commission—that’s no longer certain.
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar has now weighed in by asking for more time and study. According to his press office, “The Secretary believes it is important to build a national memorial that appropriately honors the legacy of President Eisenhower and reflects the shared vision of his family, the Commission, and the American people.” “Appropriately” is the key word here.
Several congressional heavy hitters have also expressed serious reservations, including Jim Moran, ranking member of the House Interior and Environment Committee, who has asked his colleagues on the Eisenhower Memorial Commission “to rethink their support and allow a new public competition on an alternative design.” Representative Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has demanded documents from the scandal-ridden General Services Administration—it ran the architectural competition that critics claim was rigged—and from the Eisenhower Memorial Commission. Representatives Dan Lungren, Aaron Schock, and Frank Wolf have also publicly stated their concern about the proposed design and asked for a delay. And last week the House Appropriations subcommittee responsible for funding the Eisenhower Memorial released a draft budget that included no funds for the project for fiscal year 2013, a move that could put the whole thing on hold.
Until recently, the Gehry behemoth seemed a sure thing, but no longer. If outraged citizens can persuade their elected officials not to squander their tax dollars on an inappropriate monument to a great American, it will be a victory for Ike and the American people.
Bruce Cole, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, is a senior scholar at the Hudson Institute.