Fighting over new additions to the capital’s collection of memorials is to be expected these days, with the recently opened $120 million MLK memorial criticized for what seemed to some a totalitarian style; no less than Maya Angelou said it was unable to convey to the humility that defined the man. But that granite has already been chiseled, and so attention has moved on to a subject some might have assumed far less likely to cause controversy: Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The memorial, in various planning stages for over a decade, will be located in a quarter of official Washington typically untrodden by tourists — that is, unless they visit the uninspiring home of the Department of Education, a gray edifice that the Bush administration once attempted to decorate with small red schoolhouses promoting the No Child Left Behind Act. The other side of the planned plaza faces the rear entrance of the long-decaying National Air and Space Museum, but it’s unclear why visitors would exit here when the museum’s front door opens on to all the other institutions of the Smithsonian family and the neoclassical National Gallery of Art.
The banal site meant the Eisenhower Memorial Commission needed to create something that would become a destination. So they selected an architect for the memorial whose work could not be ignored — either by fans or detractors. Frank Gehry, known for postmodern designs that reject both the simple functionalism of modernism and the order and ornament of traditional forms, has become the “starchitect” of choice for cities looking to confirm their avant-garde credentials.
In January, Gehry revealed his plans for the site, the most popular of which was described by Washington Post architecture critic Philip Kennicott, as
a giant colonnade running parallel to Independence Avenue, near the front face of the Lyndon B. Johnson Department of Education Building. Hanging from the free-standing columns, each clad with limestone, will be a stainless steel mesh, woven like fabric to depict an image pertinent to Eisenhower’s life and career. Two smaller “tapestries” will be hung closer to Independence Avenue. The plaza will be planted with sycamore trees.
The outcry was immediate, with the National Civic Art Society, which advocates for classical architecture, organizing a counter-competition and presenting a series of proposals at a Capitol Hill press conference this August. The results are impressive, and clearly more aesthetically pleasing than the Gehry approach, which one critic described as a “monumental mistake.” Many in the classical camp expressed a desire to memorialize Ike as citizen-soldier, an approach resisted by Gehry, who has continually insisted that Eisenhower should be presented first as a “barefoot boy from Abilene.”
Both approaches have problems: some of the classical designs may too easily border on uncritical celebration of American warpower, while Gehry’s plan is an attempt to reconstruct Ike as a hero for egalitarian values. The Post‘s Kennicott celebrated the latter approach by pointing to its reinforcement of American exceptionalism:
[T]he emphasis on Eisenhower’s personality and character is essential to the radical approach that Gehry and Wilson have taken. Rather than fall back on the established traditions of triumphalist and celebratory memorialization, or side-step controversy through abstraction (as in Maya Lin’s design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial), Gehry and Wilson are making a statement about their conception of Eisenhower, leadership and American values. Just under the surface of this memorial to modesty, focusing on the adolescent boy rather than the man, is an argument about what makes America exceptional. Gehry’s design underscores social mobility and opportunity, the quiet use of power and the ultimate humility of a man who was once the leader of the free world.
The head of the Eisenhower commission, Brig. Gen. Carl Reddel (ret.), may have come closer to understanding the future visitor’s encounter with the memorial, emphasizing that the site will dictate part of the experience. Reddel noted earlier this month that memorial’s proximity to the former Social Security Administration building and health and education departments creates the perfect “thematic context” for a tribute to Eisenhower, who knew that “freedom didn’t mean anything unless you were healthy, educated, and had a sense of well-being,” and thus was proud to sign legislation creating the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.
But the placement of the Eisenhower memorial among the very physical manifestations of federal bureaucracy points to a century-long trend, one that has created an official quarter of Washington dominated by tourists and government workers. The monuments here are destinations, not part of an urban fabric that caters to the well-being of the city’s inhabitants. To be sure, the Washington Monument, planned in the 1840s, has always been a monument of massive scale. But other memorials, particularly those erected in the city’s squares and circles following the Civil War, were designed to be a part of the urban fabric, comparatively small but daily reminders of the past that you might pass every day.
At some point, Washington stopped erecting traditional statue-and-pedestal monuments in favor of the destination memorial: large complexes more easily reached by tour bus than on a stroll through a city square. And these large projects are expensive, with the Eisenhower memorial projected to cost $100 million. (These significant amounts are often raised privately, but the cost of maintaining the memorials is then passed on to the National Park Service.) What if 10 or 20 major American cities, including Washington, instead spent $5 to $10 million each on comparatively modest monuments to the 34th president? Integrated into the life of each city, and more likely to be encountered daily by average citizens, such modest and diverse tributes might do more to celebrate the humility of this great leader than a destination on the wind-swept plazas of official Washington. It might also remind Americans that the strength of their country comes from a variety of places, not just the Disney-like parks of the nation’s capital.