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.