I think the New York Times columnist gets a lot wrong in the piece he published yesterday about the Eisenhower Memorial. I agree with him that Americans have a hard time with authority, with acknowledging and honoring greatness and with the dynamics and paradoxes of power. But I think the strength of Frank Gehry’s design for a monument to the 34th President of the United States is precisely its suppleness in dealing with these issues. My real beef with Brooks op-ed is that it doesn’t seem like he did much homework before writing it. My take here.
Category Archives: Memorials
There’s yet more action. The desire of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to see models and meet with the Eisenhower family and architect Frank Gehry has effectively put a stop (temporary, one hopes) to the approvals process for the memorial. There are a lot of unknowns, whether the Eisenhowers are using political pressure on the Obama administration (denied by Susan Eisenhower and Salazar’s office), or if Salazar is merely trying to be a peace maker, or is worried about this coming back to bite him and the National Park Service if everything isn’t smoothed out now. In any case, the usual judgements apply: The Eisenhower Family is being accorded undue influence over a public memorial; the process so far has included a competition conducted according to established and respected government rules; it has already received unanimous approval by the bi-partisan Eisenhower Memorial Commission (including early on grandson David Eisenhower), and enthusiastic preliminary approval from the Commission of Fine Arts. The Eisenhowers will likely try to grind down Gehry, delaying the process and demanding the evisceration of one of the most interesting, innovative and exciting memorial designs since Maya Lin gave us the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Washington is so predictable.
The Eisenhower Memorial saga continues, with Rep. Darrell Issa urging the Eisenhower Memorial Commission to delay going before the National Capital Planning Commission this summer. He wants documents pertinent to the process that led to Frank Gehry’s selection as architect. So he’s written a letter to the EMC, which has a certain force given that Issa holds an ex-officio seat on the NCPC. Delay at all costs seems to be the current strategy of memorial opponents.
The Eisenhower grandchildren gave their official response to the latest round of design changes to the proposed Eisenhower Memorial, which came from Frank Gehry’s office earlier this month. It’s distressing to see Interior Secretary Ken Salazar call for slowing the process down, which is exactly what the Eisenhower family wants. It’s distressing to see the Obama administration put the 34th President’s grandchildren in the position of vetoing the work of one of this country’s greatest architects. But the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, and Gehry, have been very gentlemanly about this process, rising above Susan Eisenhower’s invocation of Hitler’s death camps and Stalinist design in an effort to tarnish Gehry’s work. And they are once again attempting to address the family’s concerns and move the process forward. That probably sets a bad precedent in the future for empowering distant family members to determine the shape of what should be public monuments and memorials. But it is the well-mannered thing to do and is no doubt the politically expedient course of action. We’ll see if it works.
Credit: Image courtesy of Gehry Parterns, LLP, May 2012
I spent a good chunk of April working on a magazine story about Frank Gehry and the design for the Eisenhower Memorial. It’s finally seen the light of day, in the Washington Post Magazine.
What a difference a week makes. On March 20, at a Congressional hearing, it looked as if the controversy whipped up by Susan and Anne Eisenhower, and further fueled by the dogged work of a small anti-Gehry group (the National Civic Art Society, which is pretty much anti-everything of or derived from the modernist tradition) might seriously caused headaches for the Eisenhower Memorial Commission. The commission’s executive director conceded during the question period that there was not “consensus” among the commissioners, who once numbered David Eisenhower among their members, until his enigmatic resignation in December last year. A week later and the commission has come to consensus again. They stand firmly behind Gehry and his design, according to a letter released yesterday. I blogged it for the Post’s Style blog.
What changed? I wonder if it was the tone of Susan Eisenhower’s commentary, or the general sense that the memorial’s opponents were throwing everything and the kitchen sink at Gehry. Invoking Marx, Lenin, Engels, Mao, Ho Chi Minh and Hitler sounded odd and perhaps a bit unseemly.
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.
George Will spells my name correctly four times in his piece on Dwight D. Eisenhower and the plans for a Frank Gehry-designed Eisenhower memorial just south of the National Mall. Will reads my piece correctly—especially my emphasis on how Gehry’s memorial breaks with past tradition—but he disagrees with my basic premise. I think Gehry’s design is powerful because it leaves its subject open to interpretation, because it celebrates the youth and potential of the man rather than the final accomplishment, and because it breaks with the traditional vocabulary of absolute hero worship that is deployed in almost all memorials. I think its lack of determinacy (which builds on a similar idea by Maya Lin without Lin’s abstraction and silence) is a major step forward for memorial design. Not Will:
Philip Kennicott, The Post’s cultural critic, says that the statue suggests Eisenhower “both innocent of and yet pregnant with whatever failings history ultimately attributes to his career.”
Failings? A memorial is not an exhaustive assessment, it is a celebration of a preponderance of greatness.
Kennicott praises Gehry’s project because it allows visitors “space to form their own assessment of Eisenhower’s legacy.” But memorials are not seminars, they are reminders that a person esteemed by the nation lived and is worth learning more about.
Kennicott says that Gehry’s project acknowledges that “few great men are absolutely great, without flaws and failings.” Good grief. If Ike, with all his defects, was not great, cancel the memorial.
Kennicott celebrates the “relatively small representation of Eisenhower” because “there were other Eisenhowers right behind him, other men who could have done what he did, who would have risen to the occasion if they had been tapped.” How sweetly democratic: Greatness can be tapped hither and yon. But if greatness is so abundant and assured, it is hardly greatness, so cancel all memorials.
Cancel all memorials. Not a bad plan, in fact. We have enough, and we are building them too quickly, too soon after the event or the death of the person memorialized. We need a moratorium, and Will almost seems to call for one in his last sentence:
[Eisenhower’s] memory should not be buried beneath a grandiose memorial that contributes only to the worsening clutter on and around the Mall.
I’d love to know more about this last thought of Will’s. I agree entirely with Will’s sense that that Mall is becoming cluttered, though I don’t think Gehry’s memorial is grandiose at all. Rather, I think it is admirably ambivalent. But if the question is not what the Eisenhower memorial should like, but rather, should it be built near the Mall, I wonder if Will and I might be in at least partial agreement.