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

Mr. Gehry’s Lumpy Mashed Potatoes, Skin-On

I feel very sorry indeed for our friends up north.

The Canadians are generally such sensible, mild-mannered people, that it must appall many of them to see what has been proposed for downtown Toronto this week by the world’s leading “starchitect”, Frank Gehry.  In a press conference on Monday, scale models and plans for building a mixed-use residential, entertainment, retail, and educational development in Canada’s largest city were revealed by Mr. Gehry and his primary backer in the project.  These plans include three new skyscrapers clad in metal “skins” of different types, a museum, and a university campus, among other features.  Reactions on social media over the past 48 hours have spanned from dismissive eye-rolling over the design to a general consensus that the project looks quite literally like a pile of garbage, and moreover that the proposed skyscrapers in particular appear unstable.

A little over a year ago, when I first started complaining about the hideous Eisenhower Memorial which Gehry had been commissioned to design for the Nation’s capital, I went back and did some research on Gehry’s views.  I found two quotes from Mr. Gehry particularly telling.  In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Mr. Gehry admitted, “I’m confused as to what’s ugly and what’s pretty.”  That fact is patently obvious of course, from many of his executed buildings and unexecuted plans.

However the other quote has relevance for the good people of Toronto, Mr. Gehry’s home town.  “City planning? Forget it,” Mr. Gehry said.  “It’s a kind of bureaucratic nonsense. It has nothing to do with ideas. It only has to do with real estate and politics.”

It is therefore ironic but perhaps not surprising that this massive complex will be undertaken with the leadership of one of downtown Toronto’s real estate developers, who owns part of the site as well as a number of the buildings around it.  The new museum will house said developer’s collection of modern and contemporary art.  And a theatre currently owned by said developer at the site will be demolished, with a new one to be built in its place.

Naturally any such massive project is going to require political involvement to complete, since you do not undertake a project of this size without government participation in areas such as zoning, licensing, and permitting.  On top of which, presumably Canadian taxpayers will be footing at least some part of the bill for things like road paving, traffic diversion, and utilities upgrades and repairs.  Thus, the very “nonsense” which Mr. Gehry claims to abhor, is the same nonsense he himself will employ, in order to create this city of crumpled buildings.

The real nonsense of course is why Mr. Gehry continues to draw such attention and adulation, 20 years after the Guggenheim Bilbao was plunked down like a lumpy bit of skin-on mashed potato in Spain’s Basque Country.  In looking at that structure, along with the Disney concert hall, the pending Eisenhower Memorial proposal, his failed Corcoran and Paris and New York projects, and now the blighting of downtown Toronto, one has to ask the question: haven’t we seen all of this before?  Making blobby shapes and then covering them in a “skin” seems to be all that Mr. Gehry is capable of doing.  When it comes down to it, is he really such a creative genius, or isn’t he really just a one-trick pony in the world of architecture?

For now anyway, none of Mr. Gehry’s structures actually blot the downtown Washington cityscape,  and presumably the size of this commission in his home town will keep him far too occupied to try to build anything else here in DC for the foreseeable future.  And that being the case, perhaps I ought not to pity the Canadians so much.  Instead, I ought to feel a deep sense of gratitude toward them, for keeping this individual away from my city.  Though that being said, I would not wish a Frank Gehry design on my worst enemy.