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Who Spikes Ike?

Apr 21, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 30 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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The Disney fiasco joined a long list of Gehry’s epic fails. There was the business school in Ohio with the sloping roof that sent chunks of ice onto passersby (it snows in Ohio?), and then the furniture plant with a large and pointlessly complicated, although quite innovative, copper trellis that had to be torn down when it sprung a leak after a few years. And we shouldn’t forget Gehry’s signature Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain, one of the most overpraised edifices of the last century, whose flashy titanium surfaces soon began to show large brown splotches, leading more than one observer to remark that the building had come to resemble a discarded dirty diaper. Gehry said the discoloration was the contractor’s fault.

This is not, in other words, a celebrity architect whose word about pragmatic matters should be taken at face value. The commission was right to dwell on the practical flaws of the design, but we still don’t know whether Gehry’s firm will agree to come crawling back to NCPC every two months in an effort to preserve a project that even Gehry himself recently said may never be built. In any case, it’s clear by now that what Gehry wants to do and what the system of checks and balances will tolerate, politically and aesthetically, are not compatible.

The present state of affairs raises a chilling prospect: Maybe this is it. With the approval and budgetary processes at a standoff, maybe nothing, in the end, will get built. This is not the worst possible outcome; a completed Gehry design, with its trivialization of a great man, would be worse than nothing. But the standoff is also a waste of money and energy. The Eisenhower Memorial Commission has a large handful of staffers and $30 million in taxpayer money already allocated and in the bank. (Efforts to raise private money have gone limp.) Like any governmental body, the commission can keep itself occupied doing not much of anything for a long time, until the money runs out: a few million dollars more to Gehry for a few more revisions, a study here, a procedural review there, a couple of subcontractors brought in .  .  . and then, after a span of uneventful years, the barely noticed demise.

There is an alternative. Thirty million is plenty to fund a new open design competition, one not rigged for celebrity architects. Enough money should be left over to build a more affordable and dignified memorial than Gehry’s Hollywood soundstage—which is to say, a more modest memorial, in keeping with the Eisenhower that Americans loved. A handsome statue on a plinth, maybe, and a frieze or two in a leafy urban park should be enough.

Otherwise, this sad episode will stand as a monument of its own, a towering tribute to the waste, vanity, and dysfunction of a divided capital.

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