One sign of the health of a culture is the way in which it remembers its heroes, particularly in artistic ventures such as civic monuments. The appropriateness or inappropriateness of such a piece can tell us a great deal about how that culture sees itself and wants future generations to look at not only the subject of the memorial but also at those who erected it. Whether grandiose and pharaonic or intimate and reflective, these efforts ultimately serve as bellwethers for historians as much as they serve as gathering places for those who want to ponder the life and works of a particular person or recall a significant event.
The popular architect Frank Gehry recently won a competition to design a memorial to General Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, and subsequently the two-term 34th President of the United States. It is a dismal effort, as I have obliquely commented on in a previous post, and does not do justice either to Eisenhower or his service to his country. It is a wimpy, flimsy thing, just as inappropriate to the man and his ideas as the martial, almost Stalinist memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King – a man whose life was spent advocating peace, non-violence, and equality in the face of terrible oppression- and which is nearing completion not far away from the proposed site for Eisenhower’s monument.
Why was Mr. Gehry selected to design this? It is a difficult question to answer, for Washington is not a city known for the pursuit of trendy architecture. Mr. Gehry has had a crack at the D.C. market before, in his appallingly trite design for an extension to the beaux-arts splendor of the Corcoran which, mercifully, never came to pass due to funding issues. Crumpled bits of titanium are, I suppose, all very well if you are building them in places which lack any significant architectural fabric, but plunking down one of these things in one of the most historic neighborhoods of the capital would have been a disaster.
It has been brought to my attention that the National Civic Arts Society, an organization here in Washington which seeks to improve the nation’s civic art and architecture, is sponsoring a competition to design a counter-proposal to Mr. Gehry’s design. If you or someone you know is of an architectural or artistic persuasion, entries are being accepted through April 15th, and the Society provides some guidelines for those considering the project both in terms of the life and achievements of President Eisenhower himself, as well as the urban landscape in which the monument will be located. Whether the powers that be will consider the counter-proposal is, of course, an entirely separate question, but I suspect that by bringing attention to the issue it is hoped that what seems to be a fait accompli will in fact be sent back to the drawing board.
Eisenhower is admittedly not one of my favorite presidents, for various reasons which are not the proper subject of this post. However as one of the most important American figures of the 20th century in his efforts to defeat the Nazis, liberate and reconstruct Europe, and establish a bulwark against the spread of Communism during the Cold War, he is a man well-deserving of a fitting monument in the nation’s capital. That his nation cannot come up with something better than a giant folding screen to honor his memory is a sad commentary on how the confidence of the country he once led has fallen. What is about to be built is more appropriate, if indeed it could be found appropriate at all, to celebrate the memory of a romantic poet, not a man of action and decision, who changed the course of world history.
To be sure, one hopes that the counter-proposal does not go in the opposite direction, in favor of something overly harsh like the World War II Memorial, which looks like an Albert Speyer construction or Leni Riefenstahl film set. Yet there are already memorials to Eisenhower which ought to be looked to for inspiration. For example, consider the monument to Eisenhower in Grosvenor Square in London, in front of the commanding American Embassy designed by Eero Saarinen, commemorating that this was where Ike had his headquarters during the war. So much was he associated with the spot that the square came to be referred to as “Eisenhower Platz”, though sadly the American presence here is about to end as the embassy is being moved elsewhere for security reasons.
Robert Lee Dean, a graduate of West Point who subsequently became a sculptor, created a very simple, but commanding piece, evoking the confidence of Eisenhower and his generation. Copies of it have been placed at West Point and in other locations. The monument itself, a simple vote of thanks to the man who helped to secure the freedom of Britain, is a combination of sculpture, plinth, inlaid floor design, and surrounding wall, that is very effective.
Surely in the country of his birth, and in the city where he served as President for eight years, we can do something just as good if not better, that not only pays fitting tribute to General Eisenhower but also enhances, rather than clashes with, the city landscape.
Grosvenor Square, London.