If you’re looking for a textbook example of the Washington swamp Donald Trump vowed to drain, the Dwight D. Eisenhower National Memorial, designed by celebrity architect Frank Gehry and soon to be erected in the capital’s monumental core, has plenty to offer: the dubious memorial competition Gehry won, the incompetent sponsoring commission’s reliance on federal largesse rather than private donations, and pervasive official cluelessness about Gehry’s ill-conceived, very expensive, and very unpopular design. His over-scaled $150 million theme park is a self-indulgent travesty of a tribute to the D-Day commander and 34th president. To be situated across Independence Avenue from the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, the memorial will feature an enormous billboard—a stainless-steel decorated screen the architect calls a “tapestry”—that rises as high as the Lincoln Memorial and is well over twice as wide. Humility is not Gehry’s long suit. And it is odd, to put it mildly, that an architect internationally renowned for attention-grabbing structures that look like they’re dissolving or collapsing should have been chosen to design a presidential memorial.
Gehry’s design appeared doomed until last summer, when Ike’s four grandchildren abandoned their longstanding opposition—repeatedly cited by congressional opponents in denying the project construction funding—in exchange for alterations that, inconceivably, make it even worse. Congress has now provided $45 million in addition to the more than $65 million previously appropriated, and the Trump administration is on board, no matter that Gehry likened the president-elect’s oratory to Hitler’s late last year. The alterations have raised hackles among previously pliable review board members, delaying the final official approvals that the congressionally established Eisenhower Memorial Commission needs before it can break ground. The memorial’s recently anticipated completion date of June 6, 2019—D-Day’s 75th anniversary—is probably out of reach. But it’s going to get built.
In reversing themselves, Ike’s grandchildren turned their backs on the family consensus that his memorial should be “as simple as possible,” as their late father, the military historian and diplomat John S.D. Eisenhower, put it. Gehry’s design is anything but simple: attached to six cylindrical posts 11 feet in diameter, the openwork screen is the stage-set backdrop to the four-acre memorial site, which will also harbor realistic sculpture. The screen is 447 feet wide and rises 80 feet above the ground, and was originally to be threaded with a photograph-derived landscape of Ike’s native Abilene, Kansas. But the grandchildren, whose spokeswoman is Washington consultant Susan Eisenhower, liked neither the screen, which she dubbed an “Iron Curtain,” nor the emphasis on Ike’s rustic roots. During negotiations with memorial commission advisor James A. Baker, the former secretary of state, Eisenhower changed her position, agreeing to the screen’s inclusion, on the condition that it displayed a postwar peacetime vista of the Normandy coast that was the scene of the D-Day landings, instead of the Kansas prairie.
The screen’s now-abandoned Abilene landscape was to be fleshed out by the real-life prairie-style landscape framing a memorial core with two sculpture groups. Then there was the statue of a youthful Ike, perched on a wall in front of the screen and gazing at the memorial core with the sculpture groups featuring his future self as D-Day commander and president, respectively, with scenographic reliefs behind the freestanding figures crowned by skewed lithic slabs bearing Eisenhower quotations. In further deference to the grandchildren, Gehry broke up this theme-park diorama by moving the young Ike to a promenade behind the screen, completely disengaging him from the sculptures in the memorial core. This makes the memorial much more unfocused and disjointed, and the federal Commission of Fine Arts has rejected the change. At a May 18 meeting, it also disapproved the mock-up of a small portion of the re-designed screen that the Gehry team mounted in a parking lot next to the commission’s offices. The overall impression made by the mock-up, mostly taken up by sky, was miasmic, with buildings and other landscape features far too puny in scale to be recognizable from a distance. The mock-up’s promenade side featured bizarre encrustations of the steel cable used to create the coastal vista. A new mock-up must now be fabricated for the commission’s review.
Yet the visual problem that the Normandy screen presents is probably insurmountable. If it is legible from a distance—from cars passing by on Independence Avenue, say—it is bound to make a confusing impression close-up. And even if it doesn’t, the Normandy coast will be recognizable to almost no one. Fine Arts commissioner Alex Krieger, a Harvard urban design professor, pronounced himself unconcerned with the legibility issue at the hearing. Acknowledging that the memorial narrative had been “diminished” as a result of the deal with the grandchildren, he saw nothing wrong with replacing the memorial’s theatrical backdrop with an abstract background, which visitors could interpret as they wished. In that case, the screen might as well be modeled on a Jackson Pollock drip painting.
As far as Gehry is concerned, the grandchildren’s mangling of his narrative theme—the boy from Abilene who became a protagonist of the American Century—probably doesn’t matter too much. His overriding interest is in the screen, which comes about as close to a supersize chain-link fence as you could get in Washington’s monumental core. It so happens that Gehry, aside from being famous for cladding buildings in stainless steel or even titanium, is very hipped on chain link. Decades ago, he partially wrapped his own Santa Monica abode with it, and he wrapped a three-story parking garage at a downtown Santa Monica shopping mall with it, too. (The garage wrapping—emblazoned with the name of the venue, Santa Monica Place—is now history.) Gehry is focused on the memorial screen because steel is an industrial, non-traditional, outside-the-box, “real-world” material, and therefore imbued with an authenticity marble and limestone can’t match. The steel screen, in other words, is not about Ike. It’s about Gehry.
In introducing a new medium to a national presidential memorial, the screen will fulfill the perpetual modernist desideratum of pushing the envelope. What it will quite possibly violate is the requirement, under the Commemorative Works Act of 1986, that Washington memorials be constructed of “durable materials.” As always with such envelope-pushing, it will be someone else’s problem—in this case, the taxpayer’s—when bird droppings, dirt, leaves, trash, or ice accumulates on the screen and the cables begin to wear out. It’s uncertain that the technical tests run on mock-ups of the screen can accurately predict the structural performance issues that will arise over time or the maintenance that will be required. Mock-ups for I.M. Pei’s adventurous marble cladding system for the National Gallery of Art’s East Building (1978) were tested, too, and systemic failure occurred within 30 years, necessitating a $69 million reinstallation at taxpayer expense. Gehry’s screen is inevitably experimental, and for that reason runs afoul of the spirit, if not the letter, of the CWA requirement.
That apparently is of no concern to the Eisenhower Memorial Commission’s current chairman, hard-charging Sen. Pat Roberts. Roberts has assembled an all-star advisory board, whose members range from ex-presidents and vice-presidents, Henry Kissinger, and former Senate majority leader Bob Dole (like Roberts a Kansas Republican) to Tom Brokaw and Tom Hanks, the Saving Private Ryan star noted for his successful role in promoting the National World War II Memorial (2004). The Eisenhower project’s political momentum in the wake of the grandchildren’s switcheroo was demonstrated earlier this year when Mississippi’s Thad Cochran, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, took a seat on the memorial commission.
Ignored by these illustrious personages is the cloud that hangs over Gehry’s victory in the memorial competition back in 2009. The Eisenhower Memorial Commission’s original chairman, retired Los Angeles businessman Rocco Siciliano, is a friend of Gehry’s. The commission’s minutes show that Siciliano dropped the architect’s name at the commission’s very first meeting in 2001, and not for the last time. From the outset, the commission was obsessed with a wheel-reinventing memorial larded with electronic documentary bling that would “engage and enthrall” visitors. The competition brief emphasized that “no language currently exists for a 21st-century memorial.”
The commission and its collaborators at the General Services Administration were not interested in an open competition. They focused not on designs, as is typically the case with memorial competitions, but on designers and their portfolios. Only established professionals were eligible, and only the seven semi-finalists had to submit sketches—merely suggestive—of an Ike memorial. More developed schemes were required from the four finalists. A jury of modernist design professionals (plus David Eisenhower) pronounced those schemes “mediocre,” but Gehry came out on top. The competition rules unquestionably tilted the playing field in his favor. Unsurprisingly, the competition attracted a risible total of 44 entries, compared with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial competition’s 1,421 and the World War II Memorial competition’s approximately 400.
The Eisenhower family’s about-face on the Gehry design likewise raises an ethical issue. The family has long been concerned that private fundraising for the memorial would divert resources from several organizations devoted to perpetuating Ike’s legacy. Its original preference was that the federal government foot the entire bill for the memorial. That might be acceptable if it were indeed the simple memorial the family previously advocated. But a four-acre, $150 million theme park is an entirely different proposition, especially at a time of federal budget-tightening. In a congressional budget request last year, the memorial commission said that its fundraisers had identified “over 500” potential private donors “with an estimated giving capacity of over $100 million.” And yet the commission now says that it is only seeking to raise $25 million in private funds, of which it claims it has secured about half. Compare this with the World War II Memorial, whose sponsoring commission raised $197 million for both construction and maintenance, with Uncle Sam contributing $16 million. The distinctly underwhelming roster of some 265 donors on the Eisenhower Memorial Commission’s Web site testifies to the impact of the grandchildren’s prolonged opposition to the Gehry design, Congress’s repeated denials of construction funding prior to this year, and—last but not least—the design’s extreme unpopularity. “Everyone Still Hates the Planned Eisenhower Memorial,” a Washingtonian magazine headline trumpeted in 2015.
The Washington Post has compared the opprobrium sparked by Gehry’s scheme with the reception accorded Maya Lin’s Vietnam memorial concept. It should be borne in mind, however, that the admittedly far less extravagant Vietnam memorial was built with hundreds of thousands of private donations and no government money, while Lin’s conservative detractors, though well represented in high places, were actually quite limited in number. People across the political spectrum were moved by her chevron-shaped wall’s dark, funereal symbolism and highly focused design, whose center of gravity is the wall’s vertex.
Unlike Lin’s minimalist memorial, and unlike countless traditional monuments, Gehry’s Ike scheme is not symbolically oriented. In commemorative art, symbolism involves the distillation of historic figures, events, or ideals into esthetically resonant, essentially non-narrative forms. The Lincoln Memorial, for example, does not tell us the story of Abraham Lincoln. It enshrines his memory in a majestic temple while the statue within evokes the essence of the martyred president—his thoughtfulness and determination. The further away we get from symbolically oriented memorial design, the more we stray into the swamp of memorial sprawl. Gehry’s Ike scheme accordingly sprawls in narrative, spatial, and—given its electronic-infotainment component—conceptual terms.
Why should the taxpayer be on the hook for this white elephant? The argument that the dwindling ranks of Second World War vets deserve the memorial ignores the fact that they already have a major one—the World War II—right on the Mall’s central axis. In a less imperfect world, President Trump’s secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, would refuse to dignify Gehry’s scheme with a building permit. The public would applaud, and Congress could then see to the construction of a simple, appropriate monument to Eisenhower. Gehry’s screen could be relegated to another high-end parking garage.
But that’s a happier ending than the Washington swamp will likely accommodate.
Photo by Keystone