Monday, April 16th, 2012
In the April issue of The American Spectator, AEI’s Roger Scruton joins the long line of criticism in arguing against Frank Gehry’s design for the Eisenhower Memorial. The proposed memorial consists of a “4-acre space [that] will be framed by transparent woven metal tapestries showing the landscape of Abilene, Kan., Eisenhower’s hometown, and supported by 80-foot-tall columns. Included in the proposed ‘Eisenhower Square’ are two large bas reliefs depicting images of him serving as president and general […] and a sculpture of Eisenhower as a young boy.”
According to Scruton, the chief problem with the proposed design is that it tells us more about its architect than it does about Eisenhower–or our collective celebration of him:
The controversy over Frank Gehry’s design for a “memorial park” to President Eisenhower–a vast array of hideous metal walls, covered with reflections on the President’s humble origins, and mutilating (should it be built) an important public area of the capital city–has alerted Americans to the difficulty, in modern conditions, of obtaining an appropriate monument. Simple gravestones commemorate private people, and are inscribed with words of love from the few who will seriously miss them. Monuments, however, do not only commemorate public figures who have deserved well of the nation. They commemorate the nation, raise it above the land on which it is planted, and express an idea of public duty and public achievement in which everyone can share. Their meaning is not “he” or “she” but “we.” And the successful monument does not stand out as a defiance of the surrounding order, but endorses it and adds to its grace and dignity.
Washington has many such monuments. But they belong (for the most part) to another era, when architects and sculptors were prepared humbly to retire behind their own creations, so as to respect the city and its meaning. In proposing Gehry as the architect of the Eisenhower memorial, however, Washington has opted for another and newer conception of the architect’s role, and it is important to understand this if we are to grasp the extent and seriousness of their mistake. The Eisenhower family has objected to the plans on the grounds that the resulting collection of screens and narratives seem designed to belittle the former president, to cut him down to size, to redesign him as the barefoot boy who looked in wonder on the high office that miraculously came his way. But this belittling of the subject is exactly what the monument intends. By belittling the President the memorial would exalt its architect. And the true subject of his memorial park, like the true subject of every building that Gehry has ever built, would be Gehry.
This, it seems to me, shows us the reason why monuments are these days so hard to commission, and so invariably disappointing. Architects, who once were servants of the people who employed them, and conscious contributors to a shared public space, have rebranded themselves as self-expressive artists, whose works are not designed to fit in to a prior urban fabric, but to stand out as tributes to the creative urge that gave rise to them. Their meaning is not “we” but “I,” and the “I” in question gets bigger with every new design.
Gehry belongs to a small and exclusive club of “starchitects,” who specialize in designing buildings that stand out from their surroundings, so as to shock the passerby and become causes célèbres. They thrive on controversy, since it enables them to posture as original artists in a world of ignorant philistines. And their contempt for ordinary opinion is amplified by all attempts to prevent them from achieving their primary purpose, which is to scatter our cities with blemishes that bear their unmistakable trademark. Most of these starchitects—Daniel Libeskind, Richard Rogers, Norman Foster, Peter Eisenman, Rem Koolhaas—have equipped themselves with a store of pretentious gobbledygook, with which to explain their genius to those who are otherwise unable to perceive it. And when people are spending public money they will be easily influenced by gobbledygook that flatters them into believing that they are spending it on some original and world-changing masterpiece.
Recently I spent a few days in Budapest, a city that is full of monuments. In every park some bearded gentleman stands serenely on a plinth, testifying to the worth of Hungarian poetry, to the beauty of Hungarian music, to the sacrifices made in some great Hungarian cause. The monuments include bas-relief, incorporated into the corner of some building, showing soldiers advancing into war, or patriotic faces against a background flag. They include classical colonnades linking buildings across the edge of a park, and gateways lending dignity to a public street. None stands out, none is designed to draw attention to itself. On the contrary, all attention comes from the monuments, onto the city and the people who live and move within their sight. They are like the eyes of a father, resting on his children at play. They are full of the joy of belonging, and convey a serene acceptance of death in the national cause. Such monuments are the very opposite of the one proposed by Gehry. Their sculptors and architects are forgotten, their forms and materials are the forms and materials from which the city around them is built. And they retire into their corners as though in acknowledgement that their work has been done.