Saving General Eisenhower
A “controversy like no other” has arisen over efforts to memorialize Dwight D. Eisenhower on the National Mall, National Civic Art Society (NCAS) President Justin Shubow declared at a July 18 Rayburn House Office Building panel. The resolution of this controversy will decide the final configuration of a monument for one of America’s revered leaders.
A “dysfunctional process” consuming $40 million has resulted in a chaotic “dysfunctional design” for the memorial to be built across from the National Air and Space Museum, Shubow summarized. Rocco C. Siciliano, a businessman and former assistant to President Eisenhower, chairs the Eisenhower Memorial Commission. Yet Siciliano has had extensive dealings with his friend Frank Gehry, a conflict of interest involving the “pre-ordained winner” of a “so-called competition” for the monument’s design. This secretive process normally used for federal courthouses and office buildings, not monuments, considered only past work and reputations of a few architects who submitted no designs. Thus no chance existed for an unknown individual to win a blind mass competition, as occurred with the Vietnam memorial.
Sometimes called a “starchitecht,” the “celebrity” architect Gehry has a “postmodernist” or “deconstructionist” outlook described by Shubow. “You might even call him a nihilist,” Shubow elaborated; Gehry’s “inclination is to clash.” The Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, for example, appeared to be the work of a patient there, not Gehry. Gehry’s self-proclaimed emphasis is on the “chaotic, dangerous, and surprising,” former National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman Bruce Cole concurred. This often creates a “monument to Gehry’s ego,” not structures harmonizing with their environment.
Fame notwithstanding, Gehry has had failures. Walt Disney Concert Hall, home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic with Siciliano on the board, required an exterior sanding down after Gehry’s design reflected light at temperatures of 140 degrees upon passersby. By contrast, ice and snow falling from a Case Western Reserve University building designed by Gehry endangered pedestrians. Problems in a Gehry design at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology resulted in a lawsuit against Gehry.
Gehry’s Eisenhower monument “does not fit with Washington, DC, whatsoever,” a “classical city,” Shubow criticized in his thorough condemnation of the design. The monument’s intended Kansas landscape “might as well be Kazakhstan” with its winter scenes, an “allegory of death.” The monument’s boy Eisenhower figure, meanwhile, is a “sentimental piece of kitsch” like the “little doggy in the FDR memorial.”
Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “historical theme park” demonstrated to architecture critic Catesby Leigh “what monuments are and what they aren’t.” “Meant to inspire, not educate,” monuments create “symbolic evocation,” while monumental attempts at education produce “memorial sprawl.” “Memorials cannot take the place of textbooks” and other media, Leigh noted, yet Gehry’s intricate design will even feature a smartphone application.
Cole also rejected “monument sprawl,” arguing that “often the simpler, the less complicated, the better.” The Vietnam Veterans Memorial and London’s Cenotaph are “unadorned and stark,” possessing an elegant simplicity. A “sense of monumentality” comes from memorials like Lincoln’s. The Bomber Command Memorial in London also showed how classical design could successfully memorialize modern warfare, Shubow noted.
Gehry’s “design will never get built in any way, shape, or form,” Shubow observed in light of broad opposition. Yet a “race against time” to prevent the expenditure of $20 million currently appropriated for the Gehry design worried Cole. “There is no reason to throw good money after bad to resurrect this horrible project.” Nonetheless, Gehry and Siciliano “are like Captain Ahab, willing to go down with the ship,” Shubow analogized. Thus “how do you kill a zombie?”
Consideration of Eisenhower’s life only makes Gehry’s architectural deconstructionism more unbecoming of Eisenhower’s legacy. Eisenhower led a titanic struggle against tyranny, bringing democracy where there was dictatorship, peace where there was conflict. As chaos raged on bloody beaches and battlefields, Eisenhower maintained a commanding order. Eisenhower’s leadership of the Greatest Generation reminds that, whatever shades of grey exist in human affairs, some moral issues are as black and white as World War II film footage. After fighting abroad, Eisenhower as president ruled America in an era remembered for its peace and prosperity. Eisenhower’s granddaughter Susan wanted a “great memorial,” NCAS Director Howard Segermark noted. Her grandfather certainly deserves it.