eisenhower memorial kerfuffle

Plenty of digital ink getting spent on Frank Gehry’s design for the Eisenhower Memorial in Washington.  Gehry won the competition in 2010, but only now has the project reached a tipping point.  Members of the Eisenhower family started by complaining about the content of the memorial–too heavily focused on his charming Kansas boyhood, not enough on his military service–but it’s become a political football, too.  Republicans and right-leaning design organizations have found a convenient straw man to beat up in favor of…

Wa-hey!  A nice, stodgy, neo-classical design, this by one Daniel Cook, the winner of an alternative competition run by the National Civic Art Society.  That title alone drips contempt for anything new, doesn’t it?  You can practically smell the tea and finger sandwiches in the jury room.

The whole thing, in my view, makes architects look ridiculous.  Gehry’s design isn’t one of his better ones–it seems phoned in and unenthusiastic.  And it definitely dwarfs the open plaza it’s designed to support, it doesn’t even have an argument with its context, etc., etc.

But really?  A triumphal arch?  That’s the alternative?  Look.  There’s bad contemporary architecture–Gehry’s done plenty of it.  But there’s also bad classical architecture.  And this strikes me as another poorly proportioned, dry-vit and granite embarrassment similar to the Speer-like WWII memorial that scarred the Mall a decade ago.  (Any licensed critic, by the way, has to use the phrase “Speer-like” when describing it).

Is the problem, maybe, that we’re no longer a culture or society that can build a legitimate monument?  When you can find out everything about Eisenhower in a matter of minutes on line, do you really need a commemorative space in Washington?  Or even a stamp?  What if we decided that monuments really ought to be reserved for the soldiers who died fighting in Europe under Eisenhower?  Most of them don’t have Wikipedia pages or thousand-page biographies.  What if we decided that only that sort of sacrifice–not just achievement–was worthy of a major civic space or object in our nation’s shared political meeting place?

That would avoid an awful lot of awful design, and it would force monuments to be monuments, with some element of gravitas no matter what style they were.  And it would keep the dwindling open space in D.C. open.  That, honestly, is the most symbolic part of the city to me–the fact that there are spaces so important, so sacred, that we don’t build anything on them.  Seriously, spare us another half-assed monument, no matter what style or political leaning it has…

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