Eisenhower Memorial's symbolism is taken to task
Key elements of Frank Gehry's proposed design for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial in Washington came under attack again this week during a hearing held by a Congressional subcommittee.
"The Eisenhower family has two major concerns about the development of the Eisenhower Memorial at this particular point," Susan Eisenhower, a granddaughter of the former president, testified before the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands.
"One is the proposed design and concept and the other is the process that has brought us to this place," she said. "In both cases we see no alternative but to ask for strong remedies."
"We propose that the Eisenhower Memorial be redesigned and we call on the Eisenhower Memorial Commission to undergo a topdown review of its staff management practices, with the goal of streamlining its operations, reviewing its stakeholder policies,and reengaging in a meaningful way with the Eisenhower Legacy organizations, many of which were founded by Dwight Eisenhower himself."
Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry's design for the memorial doesn't satisfy the family's desires. Among the criticisms made by Susan Eisenhower are these:
• "Eisenhower’s contribution to this nation is not the central theme of the design. The narrative is muddled and never really gives us the “bottom line” phrase that articulates his contribution to the nation."
• A sculpture depicting Eisenhower as a boy fails to convey the seriousness of the responsibilities he took on. "Proponents of the young Eisenhower believe that children will be inspired by seeing themselves in the design-element’s young Eisenhower," said Susan Eisenhower. "I wonder about this premise. Children are not impressed by children. They want to be superheroes."
• The woven metal curtains that Gehry would hang from large cylinders—depicting landscapes from Eisenhower's native Kansas—have several unfortunate connotations. They suggest billboards, which Ike detested. They have been called "tapestries," but in the modern world, tapestries have most commonly been used in eastern Europe—to honor figures such as Marx, Engels, and Lenin. To some, the metal screens are redolent of the Iron Curtain that divided Communist European countries from democratic ones. The curtains also obscure the connection between the memorial and the adjacent Lyndon B. Johnson Education Building. Some have argued that the LBJ building is unattractive and deserves to be pushed into the background, but Susan Eisenhower argues that this amounts to "a symbolic affront to one of Eisenhower's contemporaries"—the majority leader of the Senate while Ike was president.
Susan Eisenhower said the relationship between the family and the staff of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission is "more strained today than ever before—in large measure because of the decision the staff made in the current debate." She said the family was unhappy when the design was fast-tracked by the Commission instead of reconsidered in ways that the descendants wanted.
The National Civic Art Society, which has been leading much of the opposition to the Gehry design, recently has argued that proposed memorials to Franklin D. Roosevelt were rejected for decades, and that the first proposed design of the Eisenhower memorial deserves the same fate.
Support for the design
The Washington Post architecture critic, Philip Kennicott, took issue with the idea that the Commission, which has overseen the process of planning and designing the memorial, should start over. Said Kennicott:
The Eisenhowers no more own the legacy of their grandfather than any soldier who served under him, or any citizen a century from now reading about him in a history book. When Susan Eisenhower said Tuesday that her grandfather “was well known not to have much care for modern art,” she introduced two irrelevant criteria for judging Gehry’s work: her memories of her grandfather, and her grandfather’s dislike of contemporary design. Memorials aren’t designed to appeal to their subjects, but to represent their subjects in meaningful ways to future generations.
Further, Kennicott said criticism of the design has come from standpoints that contradict each other:
Some have argued that the design isn’t sufficiently traditional and grand to honor the magnitude of Eisenhower’s accomplishment, while others, including Bruce Cole, a former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, argue that it is too grandiose.
Architect and writer Witold Rybczynski, who is a member of the US Commission of Fine Arts (which earlier reviewed the design and approved its general concept), wrote an op-ed article in the Friday New York Times defending the design.
Among Rybczynski's points:
Having seen full-size mock-ups of the screens on the site, I am convinced that their size will not be out of scale with the surroundings.
Another target of the critics is the proposal to include a statue of the president as a youth, recalling that he sometimes referred to himself as a “Kansas farm boy.” Some consider this an affront to a man who was a victorious five-star general as well as a successful two-term president; others find it a touching reminder of Eisenhower’s modest Midwestern roots.
I fall in the second camp, but in either case, it is important to recognize that the statue, whose design has not been finalized, will not be the only, or the largest, representation of the president on the site. The design, as it currently stands, includes two very large bas-reliefs of Eisenhower, one as military leader and one as president, as well as inscribed quotations. In this context, the small statue will have the effect of a footnote.
Rybczynski said critics of the design are wrong in arguing that a competition open to all is likely to produce superior results. He said the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was an exception. He concluded:
It’s worth remembering that the Lincoln Memorial was the result of a competition between only two young architects — Henry Bacon and John Russell Pope — and the loser, Pope, was later invited to design the Jefferson Memorial; no one else was considered.
During the Washington hearing, Howard Segermark, chairman emeritus, and Justin Shubow, current chairman of the National Civic Art Society, testified on what they regard as the inappropriateness of the Gehry design.
Washington architect Dhiru Thadani, author of a strong commentary against the design several months ago, penned another of his clever sketches, this one expressing the plea of a woman, tears in her eyes, who would "rather drown that see that awful memorial built!"
How the issue will be resolved is unclear.
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