Arguing over Frank Gehry’s plans for the Eisenhower Memorial illustrates the social construction of memorials

Architect Frank Gehry’s designs for the Eisenhower Memorial in Washington D.C. are drawing criticism. Curbed sums it up:

Anyone who still believes that “any press is good press” doesn’t know a thing about Frank Gehry’s plans for D.C.’s Eisenhower Memorial, which, ever since renderings were released for public fodder well over two years ago, has attracted a publicity buzz not unlike flies swarming a dying animal. Indeed, the memorial’s most hyperbolic and outspoken critic, the National Civic Art Society, has called Gehry’s plans for an architectural memorial park—which, with 80-foot columns and woven steel tapestries, is as nonlinear and flourished as the rest of his oeuvre—”sentimental kitsch,” “a temple to nothingness,” and a “behemoth [that] commemorates Gehry’s ego, not Eisenhower’s greatness and humility.” President Eisenhower’s grandchildren have spoken out against the design, as well, most recently calling it “regretfully, unworkable.” Oh, and don’t even get them started on those tapestries, which have been likened to the stuff of Communist regimes, derided as an “Iron Curtain to Ike,” and described by the NCAS as “a rat’s nest of tangled steel, a true maintenance nightmare.”

This week, Congress joined the clamor: Rep. Rob Bishop, a Republican from Utah, has just introduced legislation that would officially halt all of Gehry’s efforts and start the whole process afresh. Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) chimed in: “I want to know how we came up with this monstrosity.” This, of course, has ruffled a whole other set of feathers, namely those of the American Institute of Architects, which has said in a statement that the bill “is nothing more than an effort to intimidate the innovative thinking for which our profession is recognized at home and around the globe.”

This highlights the socially constructed nature of memorials. What are they supposed to look like? To know, we often look at genres. We have memorials that celebrate war victories and they look a certain way: perhaps a big arch, perhaps a leader on a horse. We have memorials to celebrate the loss of life and the ambiguous outcomes of war. See the Vietnam War Memorial or the Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Europe in Berlin. These public discussions can help ensure the public or leaders get what they want out of the memorial but might also stifle innovation.

In addition to this issue of genre, I see a few other issues in this criticism:

1. Why build a memorial for Eisenhower in the first place? Is it for his actions as president in being in charge during a time of prosperity or is it for his leadership in World War II (though we tend not to honor generals in these large ways anymore)? Here is the reasoning courtesy of the official website: eisenhowermemorial.gov.

Why honor President Eisenhower with a Memorial?

Congress approved the Dwight D. Eisenhower National Memorial in 1999 with the passage of Public Law 106-79, signed into law by President Clinton. The Eisenhower Memorial Commission is entrusted with the task of building an enduring memorial honoring Dwight D. Eisenhower as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II and the 34th President of the United States. Eisenhower understood war as only a soldier could and believed the possibility of a nuclear or thermonuclear, World War III, would be unwinnable for mankind.  He set in place a strategy for winning the Cold War, that was followed and implemented by future Presidents until the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Eisenhower’s prescience and his strategic understanding of science and technology in establishing the United States as a pre-eminent world power was essential to securing freedom for generations of Americans to come. Eisenhower was influential in bringing World War II to an end and his efforts throughout the War, especially with the planning and execution of D-Day, stopped the Nazi war machine. He also ended the Korean War and maintained active communications with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.This Memorial will not only tell the story of Eisenhower, the young man from Kansas who became a great soldier, a U.S. President, and a world leader, but will also reflect the story of America – humble, isolated beginnings, and a rapid ascension on the world stage.  His example is an inspiration that, through leadership, cooperation, and public service, we too can achieve the American dream and make a difference in the world.  Eisenhower, like America, rose to the occasion with courage and integrity.With the 60th Anniversary of his election to President and the 70th anniversary of victory in World War II, it is fitting to celebrate Eisenhower´s numerous accomplishments as a General, President, and world citizen. Dwight D. Eisenhower´s dedicated service to his country spanned 50 years. It is appropriate that the first national presidential memorial of the 21st century will honor President Eisenhower.  If there was ever a moment in our nation’s history to recognize a leader committed to both security and peace for the good of his nation and the world, now is that time.

How many presidents will receive memorials like this? How many should and who gets to decide?

2. I wonder how much of this is tied to Frank Gehry as architect. Gehry has a particular approach to structures. What if it was a lesser-known architect or even an unknown? Back to the official website:

How was Frank Gehry selected to design the Eisenhower Memorial?

Mr. Gehry was one of four finalists in a competitive process  managed by GSA under the guidelines of the General Services Administration Design Excellence Program.  The process consisted of three stages.  A notice was published in FedBizOpps announcing the opportunity for any designer with an existing portfolio to compete for the project.  Submissions were received from forty-four qualified design firms in 2008. Evaluation factors included previous work, ability to work within the constraints of an urban site, interviews, and responses to the memorial´s pre-design program. That program addressed Eisenhower´s accomplishments as well as the physical parameters of the memorial site. Mr. Gehry´s creativity, ingenuity and inventiveness demonstrated his understanding of Eisenhower as a General, President, and world citizen. An independent panel of reviewers, including Commissioner David Eisenhower, reviewed the presentations by the final four designers and recommended Frank Gehry.  The Eisenhower Commission unanimously accepted their recommendation.

3. How much should the family of the memorialized person be involved? Curbed cites the family’s dislike for the structure. But, isn’t the memorial more for the people of the United States? This is a matter of competing interests.

4. I wonder if there are any critics of Eisenhower’s presidency who might object loudly to the design of the memorial. The Eisenhower administration wasn’t perfect…

In the end, this memorial partly reflects something about Eisenhower himself but also strongly reflects our understanding of Eisenhower from the years 1999 when the Memorial process started to 2016 when the project is supposed to be done.

0 thoughts on “Arguing over Frank Gehry’s plans for the Eisenhower Memorial illustrates the social construction of memorials

  1. I would rather go to the WWII Memorial and honor the millions who died following General Eisenhower’s orders- and the orders of other generals who sent men into battle. I went to the D-Day beaches a couple of years ago and found that site and cemetery was a fitting and sober memorial to the men who fought and died there to free a people they had never met. Let that be General Eisenhower’s memorial as well. We don’t need another one.

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  2. Pingback: The fate of veteran’s memorials that lack funding | Legally Sociable

  3. Pingback: Frank Gehry answers critics of the Lucas Art Museum design | Legally Sociable

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