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Gehry's Eisenhower Memorial up for Debate

Summer view looking northeast along Maryland Avenue through the memorial site © Gehry & Partners
Summer view looking northeast along Maryland Avenue through the memorial site © Gehry & Partners

Pritzker Prize architect Frank Gehry’s designs are not shy to controversy, however the monumental significance of this design has raised the Gehry debate to an even higher level. The winning design of the GSA Design Excellence Program competition that began in 2008, Gehry Partners were chosen from forty-four design firms, then narrowed down to four finalists at which time the panel evaluated previous work, conducted interviews, and responses to the memorial’s pre-design program. Upon selection Gehry Partners provided 3 options for the Eisenhower Memorial Commission to choose from and the final design was unanimously selected in March 2010 and featured here on ArchDaily. However since the initial design was revealed it has been met with debate, including a competition hosted by the National Civic Art Society this past spring inviting classical architects to submit alternative designs for the Eisenhower Memorial. Update: Eisenhower’s grandson David, a commissioner for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission, has not publicly voiced support for or against the Gehry/Wilson design.

Summer view of the memorial from the National Air and Space Museum © Gehry & Partners Winter view looking northeast along Maryland Avenue through the memorial site © Gehry & Partners Winter view of the memorial from the street © Gehry & Partners Summer view of the memorial from the street © Gehry & Partners

In defense of the Gehry’s chosen design Daniel Feil, the executive architect at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission stated, “Different people like different things.  But this is a design that is quite an extraordinary remembrance of President Eisenhower, and that will transform this plot of land.”

Hoping to halt Gehry’s modern interpretation of what Eisenhower’s memorial should be, the National Civic Art Society’s competition resulted in a design that would be more classical.  Designed by Daniel Cook, the proposed memorial would communicate a theme of “Peace Through Understanding”, featuring a large arch and two large columns with images of Eisenhower as a general and president, and two fountains. From the Huffington Post

National Civic Art Society competition by Daniel Cook
National Civic Art Society competition by Daniel Cook

But now back to Gehry and avant-garde theater artist Robert Wilson’s Eisenhower Memorial design, as described by the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, “From a central location featuring a grove of oak trees, visitors will move to different parts of the memorial, where themes from Eisenhower’s life will be presented. The selected design concept includes columns along the north and south edges of the site, paying homage to the memorial traditions of the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, while respecting the historic vista along Maryland Avenue. Large memorial tapestries of woven stainless steel mesh supported on the colonnade of limestone depict images of Eisenhower´s life, amplifying the setting and creating an ideal background for the memorial experience.” Initially a big topic of discussion was the metal tapestries that line three sides of the 4 acre site, and the limestone columns that will support them. Designed to feature images of the 34th President’s youth depicting “the barefoot boy from Kansas”, the stainless steel billboard-esque tapestries will be transparent enough to still provide views for the Education Department headquarters. Last month a prototype of the metal tapestry was on display at the proposed site, resulting in members of the Commission of Fine Arts having positive feedback calling them “dazzling” and “delightful”.  However, the size of the limestone columns was still a concern as one member called them, “the biggest, baddest bollards around.”

Honestly though, what has seemed to be the main focus of discussion of the Gehry and Wilson designed memorial is the idea of memorializing Eisenhower’s childhood, rather than the persona of a war hero and commander in chief. Gehry and Wilson upon presenting their latest designs at the National Archives earlier this month discussed their creative approaches to the memorial – “The barefoot boy from Kansas became very compelling,” shared Wilson. Setting out to capture Ike’s personality, the two wanted to communicate Eisenhower’s humility, humble origins, and quiet use of power, the ‘classic American archetype of the self-made hero’.  Still being considered by Gehry and Wilson are a series of carved panels suggestive of the frieze on the Parthenon that would highlight both Eisenhower’s military and presidential careers.

Winter view looking northeast along Maryland Avenue through the memorial site © Gehry & Partners
Winter view looking northeast along Maryland Avenue through the memorial site © Gehry & Partners

Eisenhower family members lie on both sides of the fence, as three of Eisenhower’s granddaughters issued a statement of concern regarding the concept and scale of the memorial and requesting a timeout in the approval process. “We feel that now is the time to get these elements right — before any final design approvals are given and before any ground is broken.” But on the other side is Eisenhower’s grandson who is a commission member and still in support of the design. From the Washington Post regarding the most recent National Capital Planning Commission hearing:

Summer view of the memorial from the street © Gehry & Partners
Summer view of the memorial from the street © Gehry & Partners

Winter view of the memorial from the street © Gehry & Partners
Winter view of the memorial from the street © Gehry & Partners

March 2010 Design © Gehry & Partners
March 2010 Design © Gehry & Partners
Summer view of the memorial from the National Air and Space Museum © Gehry & Partners
Summer view of the memorial from the National Air and Space Museum © Gehry & Partners
Cite:Kelly Minner. "Gehry's Eisenhower Memorial up for Debate" 19 Oct 2011. ArchDaily. Accessed . <http://www.archdaily.com/177447/gehrys-eisenhower-memorial-up-for-debate/>