Category Archives: Memorials

In Gehry’s Defense

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.

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George Will on the Eisenhower Memorial

            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.

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