I’m glad to see Witold Rybczynski defend Frank Gehry’s design for the Eisenhower Memorial in yesterday’s The New York Times. Rybczynski is a serious, judicious and deeply knowledgeable critic, and he sits on the Commission of Fine Arts which has design oversight on the project.
Gehry’s design deserves strong support, and it was somewhat discouraging to see the architect offer to make accommodations to the Eisenhower family in a letter submitted to the House subcommittee hearing on Tuesday. I hope that’s just Gehry being diplomatic, because it makes no sense for an architect of his stature to give in on design issues because a few people two generations removed from Eisenhower don’t like his work.
Indeed, as I argued in my piece on Wednesday, it wouldn’t make sense for him to compromise even if Eisenhower himself came back from the dead and expressed his displeasure.
The involvement of the Eisenhower grandchildren also underscores the inherent problem of memorializing a civic figure too soon after his death. The Eisenhowers no more own the legacy of their grandfather than any soldier who served under him, or any citizen a century from now reading about him in a history book. When Susan Eisenhower said Tuesday that her grandfather “was well known not to have much care for modern art,” she introduced two irrelevant criteria for judging Gehry’s work: her memories of her grandfather, and her grandfather’s dislike of contemporary design. Memorials aren’t designed to appeal to their subjects, but to represent their subjects in meaningful ways to future generations.
Gehry is one of the greatest architects of the past 50 years at least, and it would be a risible shame if his legacy isn’t represented in the nation’s capital by a major work. And while Gehry hasn’t produced perfect buildings every time, the Eisenhower memorial is an important Gehry work, and an important advance from the doldrums of memorial design currently regnant in Washington.