Gehry’s Eisenhower Memorial up for Debate

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

Pritzker Prize architect ’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, 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.

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 [Gehry's] that is quite an extraordinary remembrance of President Eisenhower, and that will transform this plot of land.”

National Civic Art Society competition winning entry by Daniel Cook

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

“Some people will say these projects are not important. Some people will say no public money should be spent on these works.  Our argument is that if you have good, timeless designs you can get public support and these monuments can be funded primarily through private donations rather than public taxpayer dollars,” said Eric Wind who chaired the National Civic Art Society’s competition.

The question is how the $16 million allocated by the government for both the competition that led to the selection of Gehry design and the design itself has been spent so far, and whether the competition was ever truly competitive. Wind noted that his classical competition cost just $2,000, but the process it used was quite different from the government’s.

“We want further explanation as to how they spent the money they have been allocated by Congress,” Wind told The Huffington Post. “We also are curious to see their interactions and correspondence with Gehry Partners both before the competition and after, but especially before.” Wind said the National Civic Art Society hopes to find evidence that shows Gehry was always the favored candidate for the project. But for now, he won’t say publicly whether his organization has any evidence to back up that claim.

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

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.”

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

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 of the memorial from the street © 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:

At the National Capital Planning Commission hearing, Carl W. Reddel, director of the memorial commission, praised the Los Angeles-based Gehry and his team for being flexible and responsive to concerns about the design. Since January, when an earlier version of the design was unveiled, the size of the main tapestry has been reduced, and two smaller tapestries have been rotated 90 degrees to keep sight lines open along Maryland Avenue and create a more contained, theatrical, boxlike space framing the memorial. More green elements, including a grass-covered allée through the middle of the site, have been included.

But Reddel acknowledged that the memorial commission is moving quickly, which may be rattling a town that likes to take decades considering additions to its monumental core. His commission is racing to meet an Oct. 28 deadline to reserve a place on the NCPC’s Dec. 1 meeting agenda, at which it hopes to gain preliminary design approval. The current schedule calls for breaking ground in late fall 2012 and opening on Memorial Day in 2015.

March 2010 Design © Gehry & Partners
Updated Design October 2011 © Gehry & Partners
Cite: Minner, Kelly. "Gehry’s Eisenhower Memorial up for Debate" 19 Oct 2011. ArchDaily. Accessed 28 May 2015. <>
  • A


  • B

    building a memorial for one person is so 19th century. get over it, don’t build it, spend it somewhere else that’s more meaningful instead.

  • Matty

    wait, there’s going to be an eisenhower memorial? what in heaven’s name FOR?

  • Owen

    I remember when Gehry designed emotionally charged and dynamic spaces. This isn’t fitting for Eisenhower, Gehry’s body of work, and definitely not DC.

  • D

    If this design was submitted in an open competition, there is no way that it would have won.

  • Francisco Ruiz, Architect

    The coverage of the options for the design of the Eisenhower Memorial has been appalling.

    This is not, or should not be a false choice between two urbanistically inept, and architecturally hermetic proposals, one “Modernist” and one “Classical”.

    This should be a selection of competent urbanism (skillfully fitted in the delicate context of the L’Enfant Plan), and careful regard for the memorializing function specifically at hand, as well as the crafting of appropriate and accessible architectural expression, organically related to the history of Washington as a physical place.

    Mr.Gehry, a sculptural master, whose work is at its best when
    set in elegant dissonance against a context of cohesion and integrity (note Bilbao) is utterly at sea when charged with a task requiring any crafting of complex and historical urbanistic connections (note the unbuilt Lincoln Center proposal).

    The submittals in the recent Competition for Alternative Proposals sponsored by the National Civic Art Society are with one singular exception, yes ‘classical’, but urbanistically vapid and every bit as inept as Mr.Gehry’s proposal. Within the canons of Classical Architecture they are crude, badly scaled and indeed quite vulgar — the very sort of work (late Beaux Arts) which the great modernist LeCorbusier would call ‘the green carnations and blue chrysanthemums of Architecture’.

    I encourage anyone writing on this story, with an agenda other than the ‘carrying of political water’, that is with a genuine concern for the character of this Memorial and for the integrity of our Capital City, take a close look and publish in detail our Alternative Proposal, awarded a very curious ‘Third Place’ in the NCAS Competition.

    Among the field of submittals, including Mr.Gehry’s, only our Proposal succeeds in structuring a properly urban place, plausibly rooted in and re-enforcing of the L’Enfant Plan, and functionally anchored in living urban fabric.

    Among the field of submittals, including Mr.Gehry’s, only our Proposal presents President Eisenhower in the full context of his life’s accomplishments and in his concern for our Republic.

    This memorial is not, or should not be about indulgence in populist kitcsh (block long images of “rolling Kansas wheat), or tin pan alley cliches (statues of the General, arms akimbo”).

    This memorial should not be a condescending work which chooses to focus inordinately on the General Eisenhower, the hero of D-Day, and not on the full career of the man who would go on to become President of Columbia University, President of our Republic, and the statesman- deliverer of, along with our First President, one of the two most important farewell addresses in our national history.

    Among all the submittals only our proposal has crafted an architectural expression at once of the essence of Washington DC and in its simplicity and traditional dignity a fitting tribute to the character and legacy of this President.

    Lastly, among all this gaudy and unintelligent noise to be seen in all the proposals, only our Proposal assembles an organic place harboring mixed uses as the fitting urbanistic “frame” for the Memorial.

    Our Proposal dedicates two thirds of the too-generous acreage made available to the Memorial for complimentary private-sector development. In times of severe budget austerity, such prudent financial strategizing would be overlooked only by fools.

    • Benjamin J.

      Mr Ruiz,

      According to your comment:

      “Among all the submittals only our proposal has crafted an architectural expression at once of the essence of Washington DC and in its simplicity and traditional dignity a fitting tribute to the character and legacy of this President.”

      According to who? The jury? I’m curious about the “curious” 3rd place you mention.

      • F.Ruiz, Architect

        “Mr. J”, Whoever you are,

        Answer to your first question: The work speaks for itself.
        A proper publishing of options is what is required for an informed decision — and informed is the operative word.

        Answer to your second question: At the awards reception, at the Rayburn House of Representatives Bldg. in Washington this summer, one of the members of the so-called jury approached me and introduced himself as such. This ‘flack’ then proceeded to tell me that in the judging, my proposal “drew greater discussion than all the others combined”. This came as no surprise as it was / is the only urbanistically and architecturally viable entry in an entire field of remarkably crude work. This individual then proceeded to say to me with a broad smile on his face that, “however” he noted a certain “Democratic” character to our entry, and that he “being a Republican” could not allow it “First Award”. I was speechless at the lack of self-respect, not to mention at the arrogant impropriety, exhibited by this individual, and offered that indeed our design does exhibit a true “democratic” — with a lower- case ‘d’ character as intended, but implies no partisanship whatsoever — in fact it occupies a realm quite above or apart from all that. To this this fellow offered, again through his broad grin: ‘I know, I know’ and moved on.

        That ‘curious’ enough for ya?

  • Benjamin J.

    Yes, curious indeed. I tried to take a look at your entry, but it doesn’t seem available on your website. Can you post some images?


  • F.Ruiz, Architect

    As per request:

    Link to Eisenhower Memorial Proposal, Francisco Ruiz, Architect:

  • The Board of Directors of the National Civic Art Society

    Dear Francisco,

    We are grateful for your submission to our Eisenhower Memorial Counterproposal Competition, but sorry to see that you are alleging an unqualified jury and saying that “only our proposal has crafted an architectural expression at once of the essence of Washington DC and in its simplicity and traditional dignity a fitting tribute to the character and legacy of this President.” You are, of course, welcome to your own opinion, but the way you have expressed your opinion shows a lack of class and graciousness.

    The jury was impressed with your design. It did generate discussion and debate as to what properly should consitute a memorial. Ultimately, what was problematic was your design not reflecting the L’Enfant and McMillan Plans by simply emphasizing that 2/3 of the plot be used for private-sector development. Would the Lincoln Memorial be as meaningful if the interior was a 24-hour farmer’s market or a store? Your design did win 3rd place and you are welcome to tout the design. You clearly did put a lot of work and thought into it, which we appreciate. After hours of review and debate for all the entries we received, the jury selected your design in a tie for third place. We hope that, despite your bitterness for not winning, you will respect the will of the jury as well as the fairness of the process. Thank you, again, for applying.

    The Board of Directors of the National Civic Art Society

  • Johnny Cash CEO

    Sometimes architecture can be like an “inside joke” you really got to be there to get it. And I think Gehry’s design is indeed in that category.
    The jumbo screen in the middle of Cowboy stadium in Dallas is more sensible than what Mr. Gehry is proposing here!
    And in terms of the classical designs … Give me a break … Why does it always have to be the answer after a bad “modern” solution fails to capture imaginations ? It’s like saying my computer stopped working so I am going to buy a type writer on e-bay!

  • B

    oh geez.

  • P

    ugly as east berlin…

  • Francisco Ruiz, Architect

    To the “Board of Directors”:

    Please spare yourself(selves) further embarrassment and educate yourself(selves) in the practice and meaning of proper urbanism, before you purport to venture into criticism.

    The L’Enfant plan has been done violence by the sort of disjointed and ineptly disposed frou frou which the general field of submittals in the Competition sponsored represent — a field, in fact, no better at all than the proposal under current Congressional consideration, of a different ‘stripe’, to be sure, but equally arbitrary, coming forth not from a base and a respect for cultural tradition and continuity or a regard for the qualities of specific place but from the dens of hermetic, narcissistic, self-serving ‘movements’.

    No bitterness here, I assure you. Your foibles and transgressions are your own to deal with and live with and not for me to judge or even really condemn. No energy to be wasted on that sort of thing.

    I may be odd in this regard, but my satisfaction never lies in ‘prizes’, or personal ‘glory’. Empty things, those. It lies entirely in the work, in the putting forth of something noble, and proper in the hope of the improvement of our common lot and heritage, and culture. In this respect I am more than happy and satisfied, for I have done my small part, and done it well. It rests there, and the ball is no longer in my court but in that of the Congressional Commission in authority as well as in that of the general concerned citizenry.

    Lastly, the fartherst thing I am focused on at this time is on the character and conduct of your sponsored Competition. Very much ‘yesterday’s news’, and given its course and the suppression of fertile ideas, I am afraid of very little consequence.

    I do look to the Congressional Commission now in authority to take a full look at all that now lies on the table before moving forward with any proposal, and to open their discussions fully to the concerns for state-of-the-art professional Urban Design and general Urbanism on this important site— to date entirely excluded from any consideration. Therein lies my very positive concern, and any writings I have done or plan to do on this project will be focused entirely in this connection.

    Goodbye, and my best to you, gentlemen!


    • Elle

      Mr. Ruiz, your refusal to give way to public opinion (which is clearly against you) demonstrates quite effectively why any of proposal of yours would fail to reflect any of the sentimentality that characterizes, I believe, the great monuments of Washington. I feel you proposed a project of the status quo, well defended and based as it may be, that as a result neglected any true tribute to Eisenhower. Would such a military man accept status quo – I should say not; he would be out of the job. Your comments here have solidified you, in my mind, as a very petulant child that refuses to acknowledge the qualitative value of a problem over the quantitative, and therefore denies challenge itself. I find it even more self-serving than any possible “movement” Gehry would step outside his forte to promote. Your pointless remarks here are self-serving in themselves!

  • jrenglish

    The only remotely feasible explanation for this design? Gehry has decided to memorialize Eisenhower by invoking what may be his most lasting presidential achievement: the Interstate Highway System.

    Giant fancy billboards with Eisenhower’s face on them, framing the U.S. Capitol and blocking the Department of Education building.

    On second thought, it may be perfect.

  • C A H

    Gehry needs to answer this question: Is this a monument memorializing a man and his historical significance? Or a monument with a famous man’s name on it?
    I think the former is what the project’s objective is meant to be.
    Therefore, Gehry needs to translate Ike’s accomplishments and historical significance into form. He needs to embody Ike’s human qualities as well as his administration’s achievements. I think it’s difficult to create a design that is intended to symbolize a person and era from over 6 decades ago and not get trapped by style conflicts. Ike came from a very conformist era. He was a strict follower of order and form/function relationships. But toward the end of his era, the U.S was evolving into the non-conformist culture that it is.
    I would like to see a design that evokes those qualities.

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