A test for the Eisenhower Memorial
It is curious that for the past year—amid trillions of dollars of national debt, wars, and a perilous economy—a controversy over Frank Gehry’s proposed Eisenhower Memorial has received national attention.
The archaeological and written record shows that memorials are mankind's earliest constructions—they even predate houses. The Scripture records the Israelites erecting a stone memorial when they were still nomads living in tents. Memorials rank among civilization’s most esteemed constructions. The Great Pyramid of Cheops, at Giza, remains one of the world’s most popular tourist attractions, despite having been built more than four and a half millennia ago. Shouldn’t we know how to build these by now?
I propose that the cause of the controversy over Frank Gehry’s design for the Eisenhower memorial in Washington is confusion about the very nature of a memorial. The problem is an epistemological one. To clear this confusion we must, in an Aristotelian sense, inquire as to the telos, the purpose or natural ends of a memorial.
The telos of an acorn is to produce an oak tree. Botanists can describe in great detail what is required of the acorn to produce an oak tree. Can we not do the same with memorials? I believe we can, and must, if we are ever to get a true memorial to President Eisenhower.
Thousands of years of human experience make clear that the purpose of a memorial is memory. Memorials are built to define, celebrate, and sustain a people’s collective memory of especially noteworthy actions in their history. The study of memorials points to four criteria that a memorial must meet to be successful .
First it must convey meaning. To do that, a memorial must be articulate. It must employ a kind of language that is comprehensible to people. All languages are the product of tradition. All are based on convention. No one except a madman invents his own language. And all such invented languages are of course inaccessible to all but very few other people, if any. Simply put, without convention, there is no language.
It is this rejection of convention that is the fatal flaw of modernist memorials. Spurning any common language, modernist memorials are generally incapable of conveying meaning. An example of this is the Air Force Memorial in Arlington, Virginia.
Memorials must use a special kind of language. It must be a silent and mostly unwritten language. Its vocabulary consists of a vast constellation of ornament, common objects, plants, animals, and human figures. Convention has imparted specific meanings to all of these.
The language of a memorial is not the prose of the newspaper, but the symbol, metaphor, and allegory of the poet. Like poetry, it is not concerned with the dry facts of the surface, but the deeper, nurturing, ineffable essences of life. It is the language of art, which speaks of things too deep and too high for ordinary language. It is for this reason that photographic images and photographic statues which Gehry proposes are woefully inadequate to the task of a memorial.
The second criterion for a memorial: It must be beautiful, which traditionally has been the telos of art. What is beauty? The dictionary says beauty is that which exalts mind and spirit. Our word for beauty is epistemologically related to the words beatitude and beatific, which in turn mean “blessed by God.” Thus, in the Christian understanding, beauty is of God, and all that is good is from God, who is himself all good. And what can possibly exalt the mind and spirit more than an art that gives us a blessing from God?
True art must speak about the divine qualities attained by the best among us. If art does not utter these intimations of the divine, no one will hear them. Only art can give them voice. A people whose art no longer calls to their more exalted minds and spirit will soon lose its way. As it says in Scripture, “without a vision [a vision of the good, true and beautiful] my people perish.”
Such concerns do not figure into Gehry’s proposed memorial. Ted Bromund, writing in Commentary magazine, observed about Gehry’s proposed iron curtains (which Gehry has called “tapestries”):
“There’s nothing heroic or triumphant about them, and that’s why they’re there. Entirely out of keeping with the rest of the Mall and they will—if constructed—soon go the way of most modern architecture: rain-stained, rusted, and broken, an enduring statement of our contempt for great men, our loss of the heroic vocabulary, and our refusal to stand up to the self-promoting cleverness of an artistic culture that exists to tell us we are not worthy of their genius.
Gehry’s philosophy of design reminds me of my encounters with deconstructionist theory in graduate school: disorienting, until you realize the point of the enterprise is not to convey meaning but to smash it, all the while assuming a pose of ironic, superior, unsmashed detachment in order to win immunity from criticism.”
To create meaning and beauty in a public space, a memorial must be sensitive to its site. That is the third criterion for success. We all know when we experience this, such as when the tempietto of the Jefferson Memorial, as a sublime folly in its English Romantic garden, serves as a graceful counterpoint to the rigid French classicism of the Mall, and rises beside the Tidal Basin like an elegant swan.
There is the Grant Memorial, with the implacable general flanked by tumults of soldiers, forever guarding the Capitol, the symbol of the Union he defended, his eyes meeting Lincoln’s at the other end of the Mall, his gaze drifting across the Potomac to General Lee’s house and the road to Richmond.
We know when a monument is not in sympathy with its site. Sometimes the lack of sympathy is laughable. Sometimes the lack of sympathy is intrusive, such as the “Tilted Arc” by Richard Serra, which so impeded and offended pedestrians in a Manhattan plaza that public outcry eventually led to its removal.
Our Founding Fathers bequeathed to us a plan and vision for a beautiful and meaningful capital for our nation. Gehry’s proposed ponderous, grotesquely oversized pylons with their iron curtains will mar and dominate the important vista up Maryland Avenue to the Capitol, thereby reducing this magnificent building, our most important and revered building and symbol, to the scale of a toy.
Gehry says his monument was inspired by the idea of a “theater for cars.” Yet as an urban square in a city, rather than a freeway, it should be designed for pedestrians, not cars. Such egregious insensitivity to Washington’s classical design principles will weaken the Washington that the Founders intended—a city in which generations and millions of Americans have found inspiration, delight, and patriotic pride.
My fourth and final criterion is permanence. Memorials are built for all time. Modernism’s obsession with being “of its time” makes it constitutionally challenged in fulfilling this criterion. Modernism’s myopia of the present moment is evident in the proposed memorial’s inclusion of electronic devices and software enabling visitors to download historical content about Eisenhower onto their smartphones. These apps will likely soon be technically obsolete. A deeper concern with this concept of a memorial as a history museum is that, as all serious students of history know, nothing is more subject to change over time than written history.
For instance, when the Soviet communists conquered eastern Europe, they quickly proceeded to rewrite the national histories of the conquered, in the sure knowledge that “he who controls the past, controls the future.” But these revisionist histories were effectively ignored. Instead, the artistic patrimony of centuries of memorials speaking of their past reminded them who they were. In some cases, memorials were adorned each night with fresh flowers, which each day the Soviets removed. Thus, a daily battle was waged in a silent unwritten language, a language which spoke the truth in a way that, unlike words, could never be changed. This is the permanence offered by the language of art.
It is not surprising that growing numbers of Americans understand that Gehry’s proposal fails as a memorial design. First, it says nothing. Second, it is not beautiful, nor frankly does it profess to be. Third, it is not sensitive to its site. And fourth, it does not offer permanence.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, the City of Washington, we Americans, and generations of Americans yet unborn deserve a true memorial to Eisenhower’s exalted services to our nation, the virtues that underlay his services, and the heroic accomplishments of our nation and people under his leadership.
Milton Grenfell is an architect in Washington, DC, and vice chairman of the National Civic Art Society. He was the winner of the Institute for Classical Architecture & Art’s Arthur Ross Award in 1997. This article is adapted from a talk he gave on April 26 to the Cosmos Club in Washington.
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