Pressing pause, for cause, on the Eisenhower Memorial
It’s way too big. It’s too cartoony. Someone should scrub the design and start over.
It’s the proposal for a memorial to Dwight Eisenhower, the World War II general and US president. The memorial is to be located on a site near the National Mall in Washington. The designer is the Californian Frank Gehry, one of the world’s most famous architects, best known locally for his madly inventive but leaky Stata Center at MIT.
The proposal is full of talent and the best of intentions. But it’s the wrong thing to do.
This is a good moment to reconsider the design, because it’s currently on hold. A preliminary review by the National Capital Planning Commission was announced for Oct. 4, then postponed. The explanation is that a technical assessment of materials and construction wasn’t complete. As of this writing, no new date has been scheduled. Instead, the planning commission has posted a 256-page report that updates the memorial design. Provided by the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission, the official sponsoring body, the report is available at www.ncpc.gov.
OK, here’s a quick description. The proposed memorial site is 4 acres — that’s about the size of four football fields — off the National Mall, right behind the Air and Space Museum. On this site, 10 round stone columns, each 80 feet in height and just over 10 feet in diameter, are arranged on three sides of a stage-like space. Hanging between the columns, rather like backdrop curtains in a theater, are tapestries woven from strands of stainless steel. The tapestries picture the Kansas landscape of Ike’s boyhood.
Occupying the space shaped by the columns and tapestries are two piles of stone blocks. The blocks are inscribed with quotes from Eisenhower and also serve as podiums for two groups of statues. As currently envisioned, one of these shows Ike as general, hobnobbing with troops, and the other presents him as president, brooding over a globe of the world among some Army memorabilia. Both groups are described as “heroic-scale, in-the-round sculptures.” A third statue shows Ike as a younger man, surveying this little sculpture park from an elevated location.
The best way to describe what’s so wrong with this design is to imagine what other memorials would look like if their designers had pursued the same aesthetic.
Instead of the Lincoln Memorial, for instance, with the great Daniel Chester French figure alone in a hushed, temple-like space, suppose there was a cluttered stage set out there on the Mall, with statues of the young Lincoln splitting logs, or Lincoln as president poring over a map or speaking at Gettysburg.
Or instead of the Washington Monument, we might see the first president as a young land surveyor, then as a general and president, perhaps with Mount Vernon as background wallpaper.
Or instead of the dark reflective wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial . . . well, you can imagine the travesty as well as I can.
In all those cases, we’d feel we were looking at the equivalent of an educational comic-book biography. Or maybe at one of those dioramas, complete with rain forests and dinosaurs, that you used to find in natural history museums.
The Eisenhower, in other words, is too literal. It leaves nothing to the imagination. It spells everything out. Great memorials, like those to Lincoln, Washington, and the veterans of the Vietnam War, aren’t like that. They’re symbols, not storyboards filled with text and imagery. Symbols don’t shout their meanings. They’re silent. They’re a bit mysterious. They ask that we, the visitors, bring some of the memories and interpretations. A good memorial is like a good poem. It can be interpreted in more than one way and you feel you never quite get to the bottom of it.
This cartoonish literalism is one problem with the Eisenhower. Sheer gargantuan size is the other. I don’t blame Gehry for that. He was given an unsolvable problem: Take four football fields of precious public space and turn them into an appropriate memorial for a single man. Not only that, but he had to create something that could hold its own against neighbors that the planning commission report describes as “large, mid-century buildings, primarily of a Brutalist aesthetic.”
Gehry, working in a joint venture with the firm AECOM, responded with brilliance. His huge columns and gleaming tapestries do exactly what they’re intended to do. They take command of the site. They carve out and protect a room-like space in the midst of the difficult context. For some other purpose, this could be a great and gutsy design. But Eisenhower gets lost in it, too small a figure on too big a stage.
An earlier version was simpler and better. A statue of Ike as a boy stood among those steel tapestries of Kansas. I don’t know exactly what’s supposed to make a landscape look like Kansas — a midair Toto and Dorothy, maybe? — but at least the concept was clear. However, the Eisenhower family thought this design was too much about Ike the boy, and not enough about the later general and president. I can see why they’d feel that way. But they’ve forced Gehry’s design to be cluttered up with those images of Ike at different times and in different roles. Looking at some of the artist’s renderings, I’m reminded of a living-room sitcom peopled with characters of various ages.
Another problem with the memorial, for me anyway, is the question “Why Eisenhower?” A significant guy, sure, but more important than, say, his predecessor, Harry Truman? Or Lyndon Johnson? If Ike deserves this kind of ballyhoo, why not all the other presidents who, so far, don’t have memorials in D.C.? Already, there’s talk of one for Reagan. We could turn the Mall and its environs into a Presidential Theme Park, a national version of Disneyland, with dozens of these frozen dioramas. Maybe, instead, we should quit for a while with the four presidents we’ve already honored here: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and FDR. Those are four undoubted giants, and they’d be a good place to draw the line. (I’m ignoring U.S. Grant on horseback down in front of the Capitol, more of a war memorial than an homage to a president.)
My guess is that the Eisenhower design will eventually be built. It’s governed by what you might call the Law of Architectural Momentum. Those 256 pages of text represent an enormous amount of time, thought, and money. Just for one example, the report describes 37 versions of the design as it’s evolved to date. (It will doubtless evolve further.) It’s rare to call a halt to that kind of ongoing process.
Eventually, though, the Eisenhower will need two key approvals, by the National Capital Planning Commission and the US Commission on Fine Arts. I hope they’ll both take a long hard look.