Paul Goldberger reframes the debate — er, impasse — about the Eisenhower Memorial in the August issue of Vanity Fair:
For all that the war over the Eisenhower Memorial has been cast as a battle between modernism and traditional design, it’s really not that at all. The greatest memorials, whatever their architectural style, have conveyed a single, powerful idea with absolute clarity: the Washington Monument speaks of the singularity of the man who, more than any other, established the United States; the Lincoln Memorial of the democratic vision of the man who held it together. The Jefferson Memorial is weak because it fails to evoke Jefferson’s lively, inventive mind; the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a success because its wall of names conveys, with heartbreaking directness, the way in which individual losses join together to create a tragedy of monumental proportions for all.
This is an important point. Frank Gehry’s design fails not because it does something new, but because it is incoherent (though it is not quite, as the traditionalist National Civic Art Society claims, a “monument to nihilism”). And give Gehry credit for his first consideration, which deals directly with the memorial’s wasteland-context:
The memorial is to be built on a four-acre site in front of the headquarters of the Department of Education, a dreary modernist box a block south of the Mall, set behind one of the bleakest concrete plazas in Washington, a hostile expanse that opens onto a view of parked cars and traffic running along Maryland Avenue, which slices diagonally through the space as it runs toward the Capitol. Long before it selected Gehry, the Eisenhower Memorial Commission chose the site as “Eisenhower Square,” and proposed the idea of turning the four acres into a park that would have a memorial as its centerpiece, in effect honoring Eisenhower and solving an urban design problem at the same time.
Gehry says he was searching for a way simultaneously to set off the memorial quadrant from its surroundings and obscure the ungainly façade of the Department of Education, but not block views and light for those inside the building, so he needed something that would be both large and semi-transparent.
But Gehry’s unfocused, narrative-driven structure doesn’t work: amid “shocking” tapestries of woven steel, it portrays Eisenhower as a barefoot boy “looking toward the statues that represent his future accomplishments.” The NCAS is doubling down in opposition, and on Tuesday met at a reception on Capitol Hill to showcase top entries from its 2011 counter-proposal competition.
The alternative designs are indulgent and overambitious in a different way. A monument to Eisenhower requires architecture that is ennobling but not grandiose, focused but not heavy-handed. As president, Eisenhower was interested in quiet stewardship, and his approach was deliberate, “watchful and slow” (the design should reflect this rather than trying to compensate for it). Goldberger notes that the traditional Jefferson memorial was “delayed for years by debates over whether Jefferson, a remarkable intellect and himself an architect, would have considered it both unoriginal and pompous.” Many of the counter-proposals are unsuccessful along these lines, reminiscent of the ineffective WWII memorial, a “catalogue of classical elements, less a creative re-interpretation of classicism than a tired, heavy-handed recapitulation of it.” There’s something too imperial or triumphant about classical architecture that is overly concerned with its own classicism. Remembering Eisenhower, whose “love was not for power but for duty” and whose prescience about the military-industrial complex borders on visionary, should give us more pause.
There is also the larger theme-park effect which Lewis McCrary discussed here last year:
The monuments [in Washington] 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.
Perhaps the Department of Education will have to go on unobscured. McCrary suggests breaking down the unseemly $142 million budget for the memorial and building “comparatively modest monuments to the 34th president” in 10 or 20 American cities. The Eisenhower family’s own informal counter-proposal is to erect a statue in front of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.