Disputes over memorials are becoming a beloved tradition in the nation's capital. Thirty years ago the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was attacked as a shameful black gash in the earth, while 2004's World War II Memorial was criticized for imitating fascist aesthetics, and the just-dedicated Martin Luther King Jr. statue took flak for everything from misquoting King to using a Chinese sculptor.
As it slowly staggers toward approval, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial has continued this streak of discontent. In a recent twist, Eisenhower's grandchildren have issued a statement voicing concerns about the monument's concept and scale and suggesting that the approval process slow down until major concerns are dealt with.
At the root of the controversy is memorial designer Frank Gehry, arguably the world's best-known architect and builder of famous structures like the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain and Los Angeles's Walt Disney Concert Hall. Gehry is famed for his audacious, avant-garde designs, such as the Guggenheim's "curvilinear" shape which gives it the look of a formless mass of sheet metal. While many acknowledge Gehry's unique designs have their place, a significant number believe his style is ill-suited to presidential memorialization.
The fears of Gehry's opponents have some merit. Eschewing the classicism of most monuments and public buildings in D.C., Gehry's design for the monument is more of an enclosed park. The primary feature would be a set of woven stainless steel tapestries (called the "Eisen Curtain" by opponents) larger than the Hollywood Sign held aloft by immense columns twelve feet in diameter. The tapestries would show a series of leafless trees intended to evoke Eisenhower's native Kansas. While the memorial will likely include a statue of Eisenhower, it will not show him in his familiar roles as president or Supreme Allied Commander. Instead, Gehry and collaborator Robert Wilson are considering a statue which shows Eisenhower as a young man, a "barefoot boy from Kansas." The stated reason for this is a desire to express Eisenhower's humility, which the two believe to be among his defining traits. The end result is a monument which not only differs significantly from most other D.C. monuments, but from most monuments period. Gehry and Wilson plainly want to create an entirely new style of memorialization, but their ambition is rankling many.
Currently, the National Civic Art Society (NCAS) is leading the charge against Gehry's plan. Secretary Justin Shubow has vociferously criticized the "postmodernist takeover" of the monument, and has also raised the possibility that the entire contest to choose an architect was rigged in Gehry's favor from the start. The contest parameters, he points out, focused on the architect rather than the memorial's subject and emphasized avante-garde credentials. Additionally, the memorial commission's chairman, Rocco Siciliano, was a major fundraiser for the Gehry-designed Disney Concert Hall. This isn't conclusive proof, but is more than enough to raise suspicions.
Rather than merely protest, the NCAS also sponsored its own counter-competition to design an alternative Eisenhower monument. The winning design was a classic triumphal arch, prominently featuring two statues of Eisenhower in his roles as general and statesman. The arch design has much to recommend it: it meshes far better with D.C.'s other major monuments without simply copying them, and its style expresses Eisenhower's accomplishments without getting too caught up in its own "innovation." It would even do a better job of expressing Eisenhower's humility. Why? A traditional monument represents its subject in simple terms, while Gehry's curtain is, as Shubow puts it, "a noisemaker" disrupting the symphony of the Washington Mall. What could be less humble than that?