Category Archives: Memorials

Do we need it?

800px-District_of_Columbia_War_MemorialThat is the common question behind two recent pieces I wrote for The Washington Post. Do we need a national World War One memorial, and do we need a new stadium for the offensively named NFL team, the Washington Redskins? In an age of environmental crisis and grave economic inequality, it is the most basic and fundamental question architects should consider. There will always be a valid argument for building things that are simply beautiful and inspiring, and have no other purpose than to channel emotions and bring delight. But today, the bar is much higher for building things that don’t directly serve a need, that don’t improve lives and contribute to the sustainability of the man-made environment.

As I argue here, Washington is already full of World War One memorials, as is the rest of the country. Bringing the “forgotten war” into what one supporter of the new memorial calls the “modern practice of war memorialization” simply isn’t necessary. Let’s not forget the merits of the way we “remembered” things a century ago, and above all, let’s be skeptical about the very idea of national memory:

We use such words as memory and memorial and remembrance too casually. Of course, no one “remembers” the First World War anymore, at least not in the visceral, personal sense of those who lived through it. And there is no such thing as a collective memory of anything. Rather, there is rhetoric, history and mythology, which memorials attempt to fix in some kind of permanent form, beyond emendation or contradiction. At a local level, this effort to forge a historical sense of events is to some degree constrained by actual memory, by the memory of survivors, and by children and grandchildren. At the national level, it devolves into a meaningless language of heroism, valor and sacrifice, often in service to a larger and menacing nationalism.

The commission designated to organize and build the new memorial estimates the cost to be between $21 and $25 million dollars. That is negligible compared to the cost of a new football stadium. Price-tag estimates for recent NFL stadiums run in the $1.3 to $1.6 billion range. So rebuilding stadiums every 20 years is an obscene waste of resources–especially when franchise owners squeeze much of that money from municipalities. So what does one make of a seemingly progressive architecture firm that decides to take on an NFL team as a client? I am deeply skeptical.

Architects aren’t saints. They serve power, and always have. And BIG has served some shady patrons in the past. Different firms negotiate the ethical challenges of serving the corrupt and cruel differently. Some see themselves as merely providers of a technical service and don’t claim any particular ethical high ground. Too many overestimate their own powers, and they assuage any concerns about the client with the moral fable that someone has to build the building, so better that it be built right.

People become impassioned about memorials, which offer a rare but powerful opportunity for everyone to think about the connection between design and cultural politics. But let me gauge my dislike of these two different cases of unnecessary building. I think it’s a mistake to create a new national memorial to World War One; but I think it’s an outrage that we tolerate the egregious upward wealth redistribution, moral obliviousness and environmental destruction baked into every billion-dollar NFL stadium project.

Images: The Washington D.C. memorial to World War One, By 350z33 at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

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David Brooks on Authority and Memorials

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.

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Eisenhower Update

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.

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Rep. Issa urges a delay

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.

 

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Eisenhower Memorial Update

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

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Frank Gehry

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.

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Rallying behind Gehry

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.

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