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The problems with Gehry’s Eisenhower Memorial

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

Gehry's Proposed Eisenhower Memorial

In our preparation for May 18’s discussion panel at AEI on “Monumental Fights: The Role of Memorials in Civic Life” (register at the link), we bring you another essay by a panel participant discussing the importance of proper memorials to honor our great statesmen. In this selection from First Things, Eric Wind and Erik Bootsma, both of the National Civic Art Society (with whom we are co-sponsoring the event), raise concerns about Frank Gehry’s proposed Eisenhower Memorial and the way the design process was conducted.

Over the past year, “starchitect” Frank Gehry’s design for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial on the National Mall, has been the subject of immense and growing criticism and controversy. Objections to the proposed design, more of an anti-memorial than a memorial, have come from all quarters including the entire Eisenhower family, the National Civic Art Society (on which we serve as Board members), numerous other civic organizations, journalists, politicians, and architects. The House of Representatives Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands even had a hearing to discuss the controversy on March 20.

Opposition to the proposed memorial spans across a number of issues including the closed, opaque, and undemocratic process that led to Gehry’s selection, the depiction of Eisenhower as a barefoot boy, the Memorial’s lack of conformity to the capital’s McMillan and L’Enfant plans that legally define the city’s layout, the 13 80-feet-tall veritable missile silos spread throughout the four-acre plaza, the unsustainable and ugly 80-feet-tall woven chain-link “tapestries” depicting trees without leaves enclosing the plaza, and the $120 million cost to American taxpayers for the design and construction plus the additional cost of maintaining it.

Gehry was selected through a de facto closed competition that solicited only 44 entries from architectural firms. For comparison, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial had an open competition with over 1,400 entries and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial had an open competition with over 900 entries. Gehry’s scheme would occupy a territory adjacent to the National Mall between the National Air and Space Museum and the Department of Education building. The Gehry plan would take a few plots of land currently intersected by streets and join them into a signal four-acre plaza. Around the plaza will be 13 80-foot tall unornamented “columns.” Since the “columns” will not have a capital or base, they look like silos or the cylindrical centers of missiles.

Hung between these silos will be woven metal, perhaps partially coated in Teflon, very similar to Mr. Gehry’s beloved chain-link motif, which will depict the landscape surrounding the home in Abilene, Kansas where Dwight Eisenhower was raised. In the center of the plaza will be sycamore trees, two photographic “sculpture relief” blocks of Eisenhower, excerpts from three speeches (his Farewell Address, Homecoming Speech, and Guildhall Address), and on a large block would be Eisenhower depicted as a boy, perhaps barefoot, with his legs spread and hanging over a ledge.

Gehry stated at the National Archives in October, “I think there are people that think this is too big a space for Eisenhower. He wasn’t as important as that space is. Why does he have a space that’s bigger than somebody else? He doesn’t. He’s gonna have a little plank, for a little boy.” Alexis de Tocqueville’s words appear to be particularly appropriate to explain this lowering of Eisenhower from a man of great deeds to a tiny boy:

There is, in fact, a manly and lawful passion for equality that incites men to wish all to be powerful and honored. This passion tends to elevate the humble to the rank of the great; but there exists also in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to attempt to lower the powerful to their own level . . .

Gehry opined at the same event, “The Lincoln Memorial is in the form of a Greek temple. What’s that got to do with Lincoln?” We build monuments and memorials dedicated to the people whose ideals and virtues we seek to emulate. In the case of the Lincoln Memorial, he was honored not to make him into a god, but to emphasize that his virtues are worthy of immortality. Eisenhower himself offered reasons for why greatness is worthy of our contemplation, our memory, our honor, and our praise.

We are about to see, and are seeing, a renaissance . . . in American pride in the characteristics that have made America great—in the qualities that we so much admire in our leaders, from Benjamin Franklin through Washington, right down to our own times – where those people have been honest and straightforward and courageous—ready to do their duty—and are dedicated to you–all of you–instead of to themselves. I believe, as we contemplate their lives and all the things they did, our spirits go up . . . So, my prayer is merely this: That all of us will be inspired by the examples of those men long gone.

We like Ike. His memory deserves better and the American people deserve better than the proposed travesty, particularly for an investment of $120 million of congressionally allocated taxpayer money and 4 acres of precious land on the National Mall. It is not too late. There should be a new fair and open competition for a memorial that will allow visitors now and in the future to be inspired by President Eisenhower’s life, virtues, and greatness so that their “spirits go up.”

For more on America’s memorials, come to our panel discussion with Bruce Cole (Hudson Institute), Michael J. Lewis (Williams College), Diana Schaub (Loyola University Maryland), Roger Scruton (AEI), and Eric Wind (National Civic Art Society) on the morning of May 18. Register here.