Honoring Ike — and adding appropriately to the nation’s capital

Philip Langdon
New Urban Network

The Classicists are angry (or at least perturbed), and they’re not going to take it any more, least of all from Frank Gehry.

Last March, Gehry, who at 82 is America’s leading contemporary architect, won a competition to design the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial on four acres near Independence Avenue and the National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

Reaction was tepid. Roger K. Lewis, a longtime design contributor to The Washington Post, surveyed Gehry’s scheme and observed, “As we architects often say, it looks overdesigned.” Philip Kennicott, The Post’s architecture critic, questioned aspects of the design such as a series of large columns exhibiting “a mute blankness that may read as Soviet” — hardly a fitting aesthetic for a president who directed America’s efforts against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Now the National Civic Art Society (NCAS), a nonprofit organization that “advocates the humanist tradition,” has launched a counter-competition, aimed at generating more Classically rooted designs for the memorial. NCAS is asking designers or design teams who hold US citizenship to submit entries by April 15.

“Submissions should be designs that embody the traditions of civic art in Washington, DC, and should stand in harmony with the vision of the “L’Enfant Plan as well as the McMillan Commission [which in 1902 released a grand plan for filling a key portion of the capital with stately monuments and buildings],” says NCAS.

Formed in 2002, NCAS champions “a return in our nation’s cities to the idea of the City Beautiful — urbanism, architecture, landscape, and sculpture” that are in keeping with Classical ideals, says Washington architect Milton Grenfell, the organization’s vice chairman.

“We are taking a very holistic look at the project of building cities,” Grenfell says. “Our big focus is on the federal level. … We want to get away from absurd monuments and ghastly experiments.”

“Our sense is that a vast percentage of the American public would love to see buildings that aren’t oppressive and that aren’t quickly obsolete,” he asserts. “We all remember courthouses and Post Offices we grew up with that made us feel proud and good, and memorials from around World War I that gave you a lump in your throat. The Classical vision is the only durable, meaningful, and beautiful vision of creating cities in the West that we know of. It is a tried and true vision.”

What Gehry envisions

Gehry’s proposal for a memorial to Eisenhower struck NCAS as being entirely out of sync with that kind of thinking. As Kennicott described it in The Post, the Dwight D. Eisenhower National Memorial Commission selected a design that would create an “Eisenhower Square” lined by huge limestone columns at the intersection of Independence and Maryland Avenues and Fourth and Sixth Streets SW. The interior of the square would be filled with a grove of large oaks and a semicircular space made up of a rough assemblage of monolithic stone blocks, along with carvings and inscriptions.

Three huge “tapestries” of woven metal would run nearly the full height and length of the north face of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Education Building, featuring images of Eisenhower’s life — and perhaps mercifully hiding the façade of that dull building.

Though the design departs from Gehry’s signature language of complex curved surfaces, nonetheless it “does achieve the bigness and boldness that are hallmarks of his work,” Lewis wrote. “But pursuing bigness and boldness can lead to bloat, which regrettably appears to be the hallmark of the memorial design.”

Protecting L’Enfant’s vision

 “Gehry’s proposed basketball court-sized metal mesh screens hung between massive concrete posts over sixty feet tall would be an uncivil, brutal insult to the classical city envisioned by Pierre L’Enfant and our nation’s Founders,” NCAS declares in its competition summary. “Rather than being in harmony with Washington, the proposed monument would screen off and separate itself from the city, blocking views of the National Mall. This proposal fails Eisenhower, fails beauty, fails our capital city, and in so doing, fails our nation.”

Architect Dhiru Thadani, one of Washington’s leading new urbanists and an authority on its city plan, objects to Gehry’s idea of closing Maryland Avenue. “It is beyond ego to yet again violate the L’Enfant plan,” Thadani says. “The city does not need another plaza, so close to the mall. To say the memorial will be pedestrian-friendly is ridiculous given the scale and blankness of the pylons.”

David Brussat, a trenchant design commentator for The Providence Journal, makes these observations: “Gehry’s proposal lacks his usual whirlygig thing, so it looks just as boring as its neighbors and thus could be said to fit right in. Perhaps, but the Eisenhower memorial should still be classical because, in healing the cityscapes that modernism has murdered, one must begin somewhere. In this case, a ‘context be damned!’ attitude is appropriate.”

On blogs, some commentators have argued that Classicism is the wrong choice for a president who served in the futuristic 1950s — and that other recent memorials with a Classical feeling, like the World War II Memorial by Friedrich St. Florian Architects, are dull. Grenfell, however, says the World War II Memorial is not a design that ought to be used as a basis for evaluating the potential of Classicism. “The World War II Memorial is ersatz Classical ,” Grenfell says. “The human figure doesn’t appear in it. Its scale is enormous.”

Construction of Gehry’s design is scheduled to start in 2012. “We are certainly underdogs in trying to encourage a reconsideration of Gehry’s design,” says Eric Wind, secretary of the NCAS Board, “but the House Republican proposed budget actually cuts out some funding for the proposed Memorial, which is one good sign.”

“We are hoping that this Counterproposal Competition might stir public interest for a reconsideration [of] how President Eisenhower should be remembered,” Wind adds.

No matter how the struggle over the Eisenhower Memorial turns out, NCAS is focused on a broader objective — one that involves restoring a cultural outlook that gave rise to great achievements a century ago and then fell out of favor in many influential circles.

“During the 20th century the United States emerged as the richest, most powerful nation in history,” NCAS says on its website. “And yet the quality of its civic art — its community, planning, institutional architecture, and public monuments — deteriorated to the point of catastrophe.”

NCAS has sponsored lectures and symposiums as well as exhibitions of painting, sculpture, and architectural drawing, trying to rebuild from that “catastrophe.” Its current vision: “The Society will continue to seek the restoration of the classical tradition to its rightful primacy in our nation’s capital, while promoting design that dignifies, rather than degrades, the various realms of human endeavor in city and suburb.”