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Doing right by Ike

Tuesday, July 17th, 2012

In the last few weeks, The Weekly Standard has published two articles discussing Dwight D. Eisenhower and the proposed memorial in honor of him, designed by architect Frank Gehry.

First, Bruce Cole, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and currently a senior scholar at the Hudson Institute, compares Gehry’s proposed design with Washington’s best memorials–the Lincoln and Jefferson–and finds the former woefully lacking:

The Lincoln and Jefferson memorials on the Mall are civic shrines which engender emotion through architectural form and space; each marshals these elements to create awe and gravitas, and each revolves around a monumental statue of the president, seen in full only after visitors ascend a series of stairs and pass through a screen of columns.

Both memorials employ the vocabulary of classical architecture also used for federal buildings, including the Capitol, the White House, and the Treasury, to produce a permanence, stability, and confidence evoked by the style’s origin in ancient Greece and Rome.

The Jefferson and Lincoln memorials are self-explanatory. The visitor leaves them inspired, enlightened, instructed, and moved; they evoke greatness.

But these are not hallmarks of Frank Gehry, who made his reputation, and fortune, on unstable, disorienting, and unfocused architecture. His architectural philosophy is summed up in his claim, “Life is chaotic, dangerous, and surprising. Buildings should reflect that.”

As Gehry tells it, he was in Washington, “walking around looking at the memorials and thinking there has got to be a better way to do this.” Really? One wonders how many Americans agree that Gehry’s way is better.

While his plan borrows superficially from the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials—it includes columns, statues, and texts of speeches—it is unintelligible. Spread over four acres, the monument by its very size produces confusion, architectural preening, and pomposity. It consists of a lot of elements of different shapes, proportions, materials, and sizes, including eight-story-high pillars (purposely misnamed columns in an attempt to forge a connection with the other memorials), trees, engraved words, plinths, multiple statues, and three gargantuan 80-foot-tall aluminum mesh “tapestries” resembling chain link fences.

[…]

Unlike the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials, the Gehry plan is so incoherent that the job of elucidating it to visitors must be subcontracted to a profusion of digital interactive displays and recorded “sound wells,” which will be costly, fragile, and of little educational value.

In sum, Gehry’s design is more about his ego than about Ike. It purposely subverts long-held traditions of civic celebration by trivializing Eisenhower’s accomplishments.

He continues:

Not only to teach [rising generations] about Ike, but also to tell them why he is important and worth remembering, is the task of any memorial worthy of his name. In the execution of these tasks, the Gehry proposal fails utterly.

So, instead of spending millions more on the Gehry plan in these days of enormous government debt and expenditures, why not swap pomposity and self-promotion for modesty and restraint, befitting a memorial to Dwight Eisenhower?

The whole project could start over with a truly open and democratic competition with input from the American public as to what design would most suitably honor Eisenhower. It doesn’t matter if a traditionalist architect or one working in a modern style wins. What’s important is to build something worthy of our 34th president.

Writing for the Standard’s blog, Irving B. Schoenberg, a retired United States Air Force colonel, provides some personal anecdotes of his encounters with the 34th president. Agreeing with Cole about the need to scrap Gehry’s design and start anew, Schoenberg concludes:

Ike is “a man of the troops.” The famous picture of Ike with a group of paratroopers just prior to the Normandy invasion is reflective of Eisenhower. A statue of Ike should stand tall in a prominent place on the Mall in Washington, preferably near the World War II Memorial. It would be appropriate for a memorial of Ike to be surrounded by the men and women who so greatly admired his leadership.

For more on the Eisenhower Memorial controversy, check out our coverage here–and view remarks from Bruce Cole, Williams College’s Michael J. Lewis, AEI’s Roger Scruton, and Loyola University Maryland’s Diana Schaub from our “Monumental fights: The role of memorials in civic life” event here.

AEI