Capitol Ideas

A Monstrosity, Not a Monument

Frank Gehry's design for the Eisenhower Memorial in Washington is an insult to all concerned.

By From the December 2011 - January 2012 issue

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You may have heard that an Eisenhower Memorial is on the drawing boards. Or maybe you haven't -- there has been little publicity. It will occupy a four-acre site just off the Mall and within sight of the Capitol. Perhaps the powers that be saw its unpopularity coming a mile off. The executive director of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission acknowledged that they were "moving quickly," and according to Philip Kennicott of the Washington Post, that "may be rattling a town that likes to take decades considering additions to its monumental core." Milton Grenfell, vice chairman of the National Civic Art Society--an organization highly critical of the planned memorial--said the idea now seems to be to "move quickly to construction before anyone can voice objections."

Ground-breaking is (or was) scheduled for the late fall of 2012, less than a year from now. But word of the planned abomination is spreading. And when I called the Eisenhower Memorial Commission's executive architect, Daniel Feil, he told me that they would not be meeting their end-of-October deadline for submitting a revised design for the National Capital Planning Commission meeting in December.

The architect chosen to design the memorial is Frank Gehry and you surely have heard of him. He's the one whose undulating metallic structures draw attention to themselves. Germaine Greer called them "scrunched-up brown bags."

How was Gehry chosen to memorialize Eisenhower? I have been trying to find out, without much success. Oh, there was a "competition"-- but it was a choice "strictly confined to modernists," I was told by someone in the know. Perhaps it was rigged. Apparently an influential figure in the choice of Gehry was Rocco Siciliano, a businessman from Beverly Hills who is also chairman of the Commission. A big fundraiser for Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and a person who sits on the L.A. Philharmonic board with Gehry, Siciliano was an assistant secretary of labor in the first Eisenhower administration. Gehry also brought along avant-garde theater director Robert Wilson, who would help Gehry put Eisenhower in his proper place.

"It made me very tearful to realize that this great man was not recognized," Gehry said last year. But don't trust those crocodile tears. He's interested in aesthetic issues only to disparage them. "I'm confused as to what's ugly and what's pretty," the Los Angeles Times quoted him as saying in a particular moment of clarity.

The current design for the Eisenhower Memorial is a monstrosity. Two views are published here. One shows 60-foot concrete posts, symbolizing precisely nothing, arrayed in front of the Department of Education building. The other shows the "memorial" in its full 540-foot width, with a chain-link fence (called a "tapestry") suspended from those monster posts. The Department of Education is almost entirely concealed behind it. Cars in the foreground (on Independence Avenue) show the massive scale.

The chain-link "tapestry" depicts what seem to be dead trees in Abilene, Kansas. "These chain-link trees do not have leaves, and depict a permanent winter," said Eric Wind, secretary of the National Civic Arts Society. That society, which earlier this year held an Eisenhower Memorial counterproposal competition, stated:

Gehry's proposed basketball-court sized metal mesh screens hung between massive concrete posts over 60 feet tall would be an uncivil, brutal insult to the classical city envisioned by Pierre L'Enfant and our nation's founders.

That could be music to the ears of Frank Gehry, however. Kennicott, the Washington Post's culture critic, has put his finger on what Gehry really wants: "To break with centuries of tradition in the aesthetics of memorialization." But when a tradition lasts for centuries, maybe there's a reason for it. Wanting to break with it is the familiar goal of revolutionaries masquerading as artists.

In a 1995 interview, Gehry said: "What got me excited in the beginning were the social issues. I come from a very lefty liberal family in Canada and architecture looked like it was the panacea. You could make housing for the poor."

In the case of the Pruitt-Igoe public housing project in St. Louis (completed in 1956; demolished in 1972), social issues--crime above all--were indeed central but the high-rise architecture was part of the problem rather than a panacea. The sad fate of Pruitt-Igoe, designed by a mid-century mainstream modernist Japanese architect, was the first (but not the last) demolition of modernist architecture. Since then the Cabrini-Green high-rise projects in Chicago have also been knocked down, as have others all over the country.

The Gehry monstrosity on the Mall will cost U.S. taxpayers more than $100 million, so, while acting as our aesthetic tutors, our avant-guardians also feast off our taxes. The proposed Eisenhower Memorial is not at all comparable to the one recently dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr., also on the Mall. That ponderous chunk of granite at least was paid for with private funds. It was also a sincere attempt to represent King as, precisely, a monumental figure. (The King quotation on it misrepresented what King said, however, leading Maya Angelou and the Washington Post to recommend that it be chiseled off and reengraved.)

Kennicott wasn't entirely wrong when he called Gehry the world's most famous architect. But famous is an inch away from infamous, and that's what could lie ahead for Gehry.

CONSIDER WASHINGTON'S best-known monuments. The Lincoln Memorial (1912–22) tells visitors: "Here is a man who was a great president!" You are expected to admire him. You probably don't know who designed the memorial, but that's because the architect, Henry Bacon, wasn't trying to draw attention to himself. At a public talk at the National Archives in October, Gehry was nonetheless condescending about the Lincoln Memorial. It's "in the form of a Greek temple," he said. "What's that got to do with Lincoln?" Maybe they should have built him a log cabin.

The Jefferson Memorial was also built as a classical temple. (Architect: John Russell Pope. Construction: 1939–43.) By then modernists were already sensing that our cultural borders were undefended and that aesthetic standards could be subverted and then reenlisted in a war against bourgeois taste. So the Jefferson Memorial was criticized as retrograde even as it was being built. Dressing up 20th-century buildings in "styles that are safely dead," Gehry's forerunners complained, was a "tired architectural lie." But the people liked what they saw, FDR was solidly behind it, and the memorial was not changed. It is popular today.

The Eisenhower Memorial, like all of Gehry's work, seems designed to draw attention to Gehry himself. But its very idiosyncrasy suggests that it won't wear well. What may seem fascinatingly "different" today soon becomes merely tiresome.

Gehry's "twisted surfaces and exploded topology lessons," as Justin Shubow, chairman of the National Civic Art Society, calls them, do express Gehry's philosophy, which, he has said, is that "life is chaotic, dangerous and surprising. Building should express that." But why, exactly, should buildings seem chaotic? Gehry's seem repetitive and, in the end, merely daft. His Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas "appears to have been designed by an Alzheimer's patient," said Shubow.

There was an interesting recent contretemps in Paris. Gehry's plan to build a 150,000-square-foot cultural center called "The Cloud" was suspended by a court ruling in February. On the edge of the Bois de Boulogne, it exceeded height limits, invaded forest land, closed off a road, and so on. An outraged Gehry said his project was a "magical cloud of glass" and that his critics were "philistines." Now, one hears, the project may be back on track. It's being paid for by the richest man in France, the owner of Louis Vuitton, Dior, and Givenchy. But it resembles a half-deflated dirigible, or a "squashed lampshade," as someone said, adding that it should be razed to the ground.

MILTON GRENFELL, the National Civic Art Society's vice chairman, told me that architecture students "have to be taught to love ugliness. They're indoctrinated into this alternative universe." (Grenfell designed the traditional Eisenhower statue and pedestal shown at left; it is just one of the society's counterproposals, all of which, I'm told, are preferable to Gehry's.) I'm hoping that David Brussat of the Providence Journal is right when he said that the public has grown tired of being "the lab rats for modern architecture's addiction to experimentation." It's high time.

In his books The Painted Word (1975) and From Bauhaus to Our House (1981), Tom Wolfe turned the postwar fashion of abstract expressionism and architecture into high comedy. Frank Gehry's proposed Eisenhower Memorial represents a far greater cultural decline than abstract painting ever did. The absurdities of Pollock and de Kooning can be ignored, and today they are. You don't have to have them on your walls, or look at them in museums. If collectors view them as an investment game, that's their business. Gehry's monumental invasions are a different matter. He is in your face and intentionally so. And his proposed memorial comes not just at the public's expense but also at President Eisenhower's.

Grenfell told me that he believes the Gehry monstrosity can be stopped. The Eisenhower family has been openly critical of the planned memorial. Susan Eisenhower has told the press that the entire family is "unified" in its concerns.

The proposed memorial should be stopped. Congress should not fund this $100 million-plus scandal, $30 million of which has already been allocated. The latest Gehry vanity, supposedly a memorial to Eisenhower, is a deliberate assault on our sense of what is appropriate and as such should never be built. 

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About the Author

Tom Bethell is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, and most recently Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? (2009).