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

It Won’t Be Pretty: Stopping The Eisenhower National Memorial

On Monday evening the National Civic Art Society (“NCAS”) announced the winners of their competition to design an alternative to the Eisenhower National Memorial, a monstrosity by architect Frank Gehry which will be built in part with your tax dollars, across the street from the Air and Space Museum here in Washington. You can read more about the winning entry here, and you can also follow this link to view the talk given at the event by Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of President Eisenhower. The winning entries presented various schemes for the Eisenhower Memorial that make use of traditional monumental design elements – such as the memorial arch, colonnade, and plinth – all surrounded by landscaping.

Regular readers are already aware of what I think about Mr. Gehry’s design. From the beginning, the selection of Gehry as the architect for this memorial was a curious one. He has made his career out of building things that are quite spectacularly ugly, and while there were many ugly things built during the Eisenhower Administration, Gehry’s vision of a monument to Ike does not fit well either with the rather conservative Eisenhower era, or the Nation’s Capital.

Mr. Gehry himself, in a lengthy interview he gave in 1995, acknowledged that he first became interested in architecture in order to engage in the kind of social engineering that brought us the horrors of Le Corbusier or Cabrini Green. “What got me excited in the beginning were the social issues,” he explained. “I come from a very lefty liberal family in Canada, and architecture looked like it was the panacea. You could make housing for the poor and make wonderful cities, city planning in the future and so on. That was the initial turn-on. That lasted me all the way through school, actually.”

By the time he completed architecture school at the University of Southern California, Mr. Gehry had become more jaded. “When I got out of school I hit the brick wall,” said Gehry. “You can’t do any of that. It doesn’t exist. You can’t do it. There are no clients for social housing in America. There is no program, no nothing.”

What’s more, in the interview Mr. Gehry characterized efforts to work with city planning professionals as something of an obstacle. “City planning? Forget it. It’s a kind of bureaucratic nonsense. It has nothing to do with ideas. It only has to do with real estate and politics.” This perhaps explains why Gehry’s design eliminates a portion of Maryland Avenue from the L’Enfant grid, which city planners have been trying so hard to stick to whenever possible.

It should not be a foregone conclusion, gentle reader, that because of the stature of the person involved that the design of this memorial is a foregone conclusion. The fact that Mr. Gehry is a world-famous architect does not mean that his efforts are unstoppable. As a matter of fact, his plans to deface the historic Corcoran Gallery of Art here in Washington were scrapped several years ago. More recently, a number of cities around the world have stopped him from plunking down his monumental white elephants on the landscape, which ignore local concerns and often deteriorate at an alarming rate.

In Paris earlier this year, the courts revoked planning permission for one of Mr. Gehry’s mishmash structures being built on the edge of the beloved Bois de Bologne park, to house the contemporary art collection of a Parisian billionaire. In exchange, an enraged Gehry characterized those living near the park who did not want to see more concrete covering up green space in the city as “individualistic, uncouth philistines”. His displeasure is understandable given that it is likely at least some of what has been built to date will have to be demolished.

Similarly, the Gehry-designed Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem was scrapped last year following years of court fights and protests that it was going to pave over an ancient Muslim cemetery, although Mr. Gehry himself stated that he was withdrawing from the project for other reasons. And in Brooklyn, the Atlantic Yards project, featuring a monstrous collapsing tower by Gehry, went back to the drawing board following years of protest from the public. Ironically, given Gehry’s above-quoted views on city planning, the project was described as a “corrupt land grab”, a “taxpayer ripoff”, and a “complete failure of democracy” by one of the leaders of a group opposed to the project.

In a lengthy profile piece in the L.A. Times published some years ago, Mr. Gehry was quoted as saying: “My approach to architecture is different . . . I’m confused as to what’s ugly and what’s pretty.” This is precisely the problem. Since Gehry admittedly does not know what is ugly, and clearly neither do our elected representatives asking us to pay for his ignorance, let us go back to the drawing board with someone who is not so confused.  Then, perhaps, we will actually get something pretty monumental, rather than something that is pretty ugly.

Site for the Eisenhower National Memorial
in Washington, D.C.