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Eisenhower memorial criticism all around

Friday, June 1st, 2012

Eisenhower Memorial architect Frank Gehry

Responding to the latest changes (more background here) to the proposed Eisenhower Memorial, the Eisenhower family thanked the Memorial Commission and architect Frank Gehry for the revisions, but still expressed reservations about parts of the design:

“From our perspective, many of the changes that Gehry Partners made to the design concept are positive and welcomed,” the family said–but added that more time is needed to break an impasse over the metal scrims.

“Not only are they the most expensive element of the Gehry design, they are also the most vulnerable to urban conditions…” the family said. “This one-of-a-kind experimental technology, which serves as the memorial’s backdrop, is impractical and unnecessary.”

The family said it won’t support a design that uses the metal scrims, doubting how long they would last. Susan Eisenhower, Ike’s granddaughter, said her family is not endorsing the design.

[…] In an interview, Susan Eisenhower said adding statues would draw attention to the 34th president’s accomplishments. Other elements are innovative for today–namely the woven metal–but aren’t designed for the ages, she said.

“It’s America’s memorial and our gift to future generations,” she said. “If this doesn’t get completed in my lifetime, I’m OK with that as long as we’ve got the right process in place.”

Joining the family’s unrest with the proposed design is a growing number of Executive officials and Congressional lawmakers, including Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who recently emphasized the need for the Commission to create a proposal approved by Eisenhower’s family, Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), who sits on the Appropriations Committee, and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who announced that he would also withhold his support as a voting member of the National Capital Planning Commission–a committee that must approve the design in order for it to go forward.

As criticism of the proposed memorial has grown, so too have attacks on the critics. Writing in the Architectural Record about the Program’s recent event on memorials, Ben Adler characterized the monument’s critics as simply conservative “curmudgeons” who will  “always revile Modernism for both ideological and aesthetic reasons.”

Responding to Adler in the same journal, the Program’s Cheryl Miller writes:

Adler cites in evidence of his argument Gary Schmitt’s critique of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Yet, in his opening remarks, Schmitt praised the memorial’s design as “quite striking and artistically coherent,” while arguing that “as a memorial, it failed the basic task of memorializing the virtues and sacrifices made by those who had served and died in that war.” This is clearly not a statement against Modernism as a style, but rather a criticism of Lin’s decision to make the nation’s grief and regret the central message of the memorial. (Roger Scruton, the other panelist who discussed the Vietnam Memorial, also tempered his criticism with praise, noting that “it has a power to it.”)

Further complicating the “conservative curmudgeon” line, panelist Michael J. Lewis, a professor of architecture at Williams College, has publicly praised Lin’s design for its “sublime abstraction” while tweaking the more traditional Frederick Hart “Fighting Men” sculpture for its literalness. Certainly, no one on the panel would agree with the hyperbolic statement that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is, in Adler’s words, “a contemptible failure.”

Adler expresses befuddlement that the panel would criticize the classically inspired National World War II Memorial. “The irony…is that even when these curmudgeons get what they want, they remain unhappy,” he writes. But none of the panelists subscribe to the simple-minded notion that classical design a good memorial makes. Instead, the panelists offered a much more nuanced take on why memorials fail or succeed—one in which the “Classicism-vs.-Modernism” battle was largely irrelevant.

For example, Diana Schaub’s remarks (recently reprinted in The Weekly Standard) only briefly alluded to the controversies over the Martin Luther King and Dwight Eisenhower memorials before offering a thoughtful history of the Lincoln Memorial and its 1876 precursor, The Freedmen’s Monument. Schaub argued that The Freedmen’s Monument has been largely forgotten in favor of the Lincoln Memorial because, in “missing the element of black dignity and equality,” it “spoke to the past as an expression of gratitude, but not to the future as a model for emulation.”

In defending architectural Modernism, Adler falls into the very trap he warns against. We agree with panelist Bruce Cole that “a Modernist architect could create the proportion, order, stability, and balance needed to make an effective memorial.” (This was no empty concession as Cole went on to cite specific examples, including the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme and the Normandy American Cemetery Visitor Center.) But just because something is “bold and different” doesn’t make it a good memorial.

Readers may disagree with the panelists about the merits of Gehry’s design, but we encourage them to judge their arguments for themselves and watch the panel online.

Read the whole response here.