Calling Frank Gehry’s Bluff

Regular readers of these pages know that I’ve been following the plans for a memorial to President Eisenhower, designed by starchitect Frank Gehry, which is to be placed in a park just alongside the National Mall here in DC.  This rather titanic project, which has been in development for years, has yet to see a single spade of earth turned toward completing it.  With costs already estimated to overrun $140 million, it is also becoming something of a cuckoo in the nest of Washington’s monumental core.

This morning WaPo is reporting that the Eisenhower Memorial Commission meets today to look over some proposed modifications to the design, including one which pretty much eliminates much of the signature Frank Gehry style, i.e. using giant pieces of metal “screens” through the park.  As The Post points out, questions were already swirling around the grant of the commission in the first place.  The current re-think however, was prompted in part by concern from Congressman Darrell Issa (R-CA), that the screens ought to be eliminated or significantly downsized, in order for the memorial to go forward.  In response, Mr. Gehry has threatened to remove his name from the project altogether.

I say it’s time to call Mr. Gehry’s bluff.

Understandably, Mr. Gehry wants to be able to place one of his pimples on the face of the Nation’s Capital because it is one of the few major international cities that so far has refused him.  Washington is not a large city, nor an innovative one in terms of its architecture, but by nature of what goes on here and the impact that decisions made here have on the rest of mankind, it’s arguably the most important city in the world.  Moreover, coming to Washington without seeing the monuments and museums celebrating the history and achievements of the American people, is a bit like going to Athens and not seeing the ruins of the Ancient Greeks.

When you’re an architect ticking off boxes on your bucket list, you recognize that to build a memorial or museum here in Washington is to enter a pantheon of sorts. Your work is almost guaranteed to be preserved and visited for a long time, unlike, say, an office building or hotel.  You may even have the chance of seeing your work become part of history, as has often been the case with the Lincoln Memorial, for example.  However whatever you are designing and building for this particular city, which is a rather unique place, you have to keep in mind that your audience is not hugely interested in being flashy or trendy, but rather in expressing dignity: these structures are meant to last forever, if possible, not look great for 10 or 20 years and then start corroding and rusting away.

Since the Eisenhower Memorial is meant to serve the American people, by honoring the memory of a great servant and leader of that people, rather than the needs of Mr. Gehry, the simplest solution would indeed be that he remove himself from the project altogether.  No one seems to like his design, particularly not the family of Eisenhower himself.  It tells us nothing about the man from Middle America who helped lead our military to victory in Europe during World War II, or oversaw one of the most prosperous periods of growth in this country’s history.

If we are to have a monument to Ike at all, let it be upright and straightforward, like the man himself, with a minimum of fussiness.  Too much time, money, and ink have already been wasted on this project, with little or nothing to show for it other than wasted taxpayer funds – $25 million and counting – and a slew of hurt feelings.   For $25 million, we could have landscaped the parcel where the memorial park will go, and put up a simple column or plinth with a bronze statue of Eisenhower on it. Residents and visitors would already be appreciating a new space along the National Mall to pause, rest, and reflect on the man and his era.

My bet is that tapestries or no tapestries, Mr. Gehry is not going anywhere.  After all, the opportunities to build a major memorial or museum in Washington do not come along every day.  So for pity’s sake, let’s just stop lollygagging around, cut this thing down to a manageable size, and get the job done.

One of the proposed giant "tapestry" walls of the Eisenhower Memorial

One of the proposed giant “tapestry” walls of the Eisenhower Memorial

Notre Dame and Under Armour: Building a Unique Uniform

Not being a sports fan, press reports about Under Armour’s new uniforms for the University of Notre Dame’s famous football team would normally get a pass from me.  Yes, I graduated from Notre Dame Law, and yes, I own a few articles of clothing by Under Armour – Superman shirts, natch.  Yet those facts alone usually wouldn’t be enough to attract my attention.  However when I read that the company looked to the buildings of Notre Dame itself for inspiration when designing these particular uniforms, that connection seemed worth exploring.

If you know a little bit about Notre Dame, even from such films as “Knute Rockne, All American” or “Rudy”, you know that the football team’s helmets are painted gold.  This references the Main Building or “Golden Dome” at the heart of the school’s campus, which is topped by a gold dome crowned with a statue of Our Lady.  You may also be aware of the giant mosaic mural affectionately known as “Touchdown Jesus”, This covers the south facade of Hesburgh Library, and is visible from the Notre Dame football stadium.  The image of a triumphant Christ, His arms raised in blessing, is reminiscent of a football referee signaling a touchdown.

The headline of the article linked to above isn’t exactly correct, in that the new uniforms don’t look like campus buildings themselves.  That sort of design would prove rather cumbersome when running around a field: someone in a suit shaped like one of the beehive turrets on Sorin Hall would find it difficult to slip past an offensive onslaught, for example.  Instead, the references are in one instance, subtle, and in another, quite bold.

Just as the team helmets are a nod to the university’s headquarters, so the sleeves and the sock tops of the new uniforms now bear a stripe referencing the striped top of Hesburgh Library.  I can’t say that I like that building, which is one of those mid-century concrete monstrosities by disciples of Le Corbusier.  Nevertheless I can appreciate why, for Notre Dame football players and fans, this subtle reference to Touchdown Jesus will  be regarded with affection.

The real eye-opener though, is the design for the “Shamrock Series”, a newer sports tradition at Notre Dame.  The shirt and accompanying gloves feature an intricate, Renaissance Revival pattern, which reproduce the pattern of the floor tiles inside the central hall of the Golden Dome itself.  Now this is a form of architectural reference in clothing design, done in quite a passionate, attractive way.  Yes, I know it’s probably over the top for most people, but if the Italian condottieri and Spanish conquistadores of the 15th and 16th centuries were around today, they would probably be wearing something like this base layer beneath their steel armor.

Of course, placing a stripe or tile with an architectural reference onto an article of clothing made for athletes, then translated for public consumption, isn’t going to convert me into a football fan.  However, even this non-sports fan scrivener might be willing to pick up a shirt or a pair of socks bearing such a reference, if the mood strikes.  I appreciate a bold design, and much as I hated the isolation and the interminable South Bend winters, I do remember good times like tailgate parties in the stadium parking lot during football season, even if the games had no interest for me.  And in building these updated uniforms upon the architectural beauty of the campus itself, Notre Dame and Under Armour have done a great job.

Detail of Under Armour's design for the Notre Dame "Shamrock Series" uniforms

Detail of Under Armour’s design for the Notre Dame “Shamrock Series” uniforms

 

 

The Crumbling Cube

Surprise, surprise: an iconic example of contemporary architecture is falling apart, after only 25 years.

I have never had the misfortune of visiting the bleak, “Logan’s Run” Parisian district known as La Defense, but I have winced many times at seeing images of it onscreen or in print.  A monument to the bloated and bewildered state of architecture today, the centerpiece of this massive zit on the face of Paris is a structure known as La Grande Arche.  Opened on the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution to complete an axis with the Arche de Triomphe, La Grande Arche is not really an arch, but rather a large office block: a cube with a huge hole cut in the middle of it.

George Weigel made this structure the jumping-off point for his seminal 2005 book, “The Cube and the Cathedral”, which explores some of the reasons why today, Europe and America tend to see the same issues very differently.  In an excerpt published in Commentary, Weigel noted that “La Grande Arche was nicknamed ‘Fraternity Arch'; also noted, as in every other guidebook I looked at, was the fact that within its space the entire cathedral of Notre-Dame, including towers and spire, would fit comfortably.”

Of course, the irony is that while the roughly 700-year old Notre-Dame de Paris hosts thousands of worshipers and visitors daily, the quarter-century old Grande Arche is now considered so unsafe that the building is completely closed to the public.  The rooftop views of Paris which Weigel described in his book have been cut off to visitors since 2010, thanks to elevator problems.  Only part of the cube is currently occupied, mostly by French government offices, since no one wants to rent space in the cramped, dark interiors.  And famously. the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once got stuck here, when the door handle of the ladies’ room broke off; her security detail had to break down the door to get her out.

La Grande Arche was expensive to build, and will be expensive to fix, with renovation estimates currently at $270 million.  That figure will no doubt rise as contractors and engineers begin to tackle a host of problems, such as replacing the failing marble panels which act as its skin with more durable granite.  While common sense would dictate tearing the thing down and starting over with something more traditional and practical, the building is also sadly emblematic of what has happened to France, and indeed much of Western culture, for two reasons.

First, the self-interested tendency of many contemporary architects to build whatever is theoretically possible and damn the consequences is a headache which we are passing along to future generations.  Rather than needing renovation after a century of use, these structures begin to fail almost immediately after they are built.  The so-called “innovation” which goes into their design guarantees that the architectural practice which comes up with the building in the first place, being paid millions of dollars to do so, gets a guarantee of additional income in 5, 10, or 25 years, when some aspect of their project needs an overhaul.

Second, while most articles and guidebooks mention the fact that the city’s Cathedral could fit inside La Grande Arche, they fail to see the irony of this statement.  La Grande Arche was built to celebrate the supposedly humanitarian French Revolution, yet like that revolution the core of the monument is a massive, meaningless void.  Anyone who has studied the French Revolution beyond the basic overview typically given in secondary school knows that the entire experience was quite literally a bloody, godless mess.  Whereas the American Revolution brought the people to their knees, in prayer for God’s guidance, the French Revolution brought people to their feet, in a blood-soaked, violent rejection of Faith.

The fact that modern-day France celebrates itself in this quite literally heartless building, which is now crumbling before our eyes, has broader implications.  There is a gaping hole at the center of Western culture at present, with the removal of Faith from the heart of who we are and what we do.  We have yet to hit on any satisfactory, alternative means of filling that void.

La Grande Arche, Paris

La Grande Arche, Paris