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?
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.