Debate on the nearly-final Eisenhower Memorial concepts and the process used to create them erupted today, culminating in a tense hearing on Capitol Hill. Many different views on the $115 million, 4-acre project were presented. Rep. Rob Bishop, Chairman, Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands, wondered whether the designs should move forward or there should be a pause to re-evaluate them. Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva thought the idea of Congress wading into the design of a national monument was “unusual,” and Congress wasn’t the place to “litigate the design” concepts created by a team led by architect Frank Gehry and including landscape architects at AECOM and other firms.
Susan Eisenhower, a granddaugther of the president who is representing the Eisenhower family, said an “open, transparent, democratic process” was needed for the Eisenhower memorial and wasn’t used the first time around. Echoing criticisms made by Richard Dreihaus, an “architectural traditionalist” in The Washington Post that almost all national monuments have gone through a public design process, Eisenhower took aim at the process that was used: a review of firm qualifications by the General Service Administration (GSA)’s Design Excellence program. She said the monument must now be redesigned through a public process, and the commission needs to fundamentally review how it engages with stakeholders.
The design has been bandied about for more than two years now. But, still, the “narrative is wrong” and the 65-feet tall metal scrims are viewed as almost fascist. Eisenhower said President Eisenhower’s contributions to the U.S. are “not central,” and there’s no mention of his role in leading the “largest war effort ever in human history.” Instead, there’s a “Horatio Alger character, a boy who grew up to be president.” The Eisenhower family seems to utterly detest the metal scrim, which will display images of trees, adding that these kinds of design elements are “usually found in the Communist world.” The fact that they are made of metal may send the signal that these represent the “Iron Curtain.” Even worse: the scrims remind some Holocaust survivors she’s heard from of Internment camp fences. On top of all of this, the scrims may be expensive to maintain. (However, Gehry and the commission deny this, arguing that while that material technology is relatively new, it shouldn’t have any issues).
The family, she added, wants “something simple that focuses on his achievements.” The “scope and scale are all wrong. Eisenhower would have wanted something smaller, less dramatic. It was well-known that he wasn’t into Modern art.” The heavy stone columns could be “missile silos.” The only way to fix these issues is “redesign the entire monument,” which she said had been done three times for the Franklin Delano Roosevelt monument before everyone settled on Lawrence Halprin’s almost universally admired work of landscape architecture. But, interestingly, The Architect’s Newspaper, reports that the Eisenhower family was for the design just a few years ago. Clearly something changed.
D.C. government departments and non-profits then weighed in with details about the design and public review process, or lent support to the Eisenhowers. The National Park Service said the environmental impact assessment was done like it’s always done. The GSA defended its program, which has been very successful in connecting big-name architects and landscape architects to a range of federal projects, improving design quality across the board. Using a request for qualifications (RFQ) instead of calling for an open design competition, GSA culled a list of 44 entries down to 7 architecture and landscape architecture firms that then provided design concepts. Four concepts then moved to the commission for review. William Guerin, Assistant Commissioner for the Office of Construction Programs, GSA, said that throughout the process there was “lots of public review and comment.”
Brig. Gen. Carl Reddell, executive director of the Eisenhower memorial commission, who recently pulled back from presenting the near-final concepts to the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), a Federal group that needs to approve the final designs, added that the memorial visioning process has been going on for 11 years now, and there has been 23 review meetings, which have all been open to the public.
A host of groups were opposed to the design and GSA-organized design process. Howard Segermark, National Civic Art Society, a group dedicated to promoting “classical and traditional art” and that sponsored its own public design competition for the site, said the “process has flown under the radar, with little public involvement.” He implied that close ties among some members of the commission and Frank Gehry led to that starchitect being selected. Segermark argued that simply weeding our potential competitors based on their qualifications meant cutting out any up-and-coming or undiscovered talent like Maya Lin, the architecture student who won the public Vietnam War memorial design competition. While the GSA has done good work elsewhere, “circumstances have conspired to create a real mess.”
The president of the National Monuments Foundation, Rodney Mims Cook, Jr., made a similar case, saying the design process should have been public, like it has been for all other presidential memorials. In this case, the “design excellence program exceeded its mandate.” Cook says the “opposition of the family must also be honored.” More criticisms came from Bruce Cole, Hudson Institute, who said the design is “incongruent.” “We need to go back to the drawing board and open a call to all designers.”
Whether you like the design or not, the controversy may raise questions about whether public design competitions with diverse juries are needed for national monuments. In this instance at least, the design process may have left a number of stakeholders feeling excluded and unheard, including a key constituency: the Eisenhower family. On the other side, some $16 million has already been spent over two years. Starting over again will mean throwing out all that design work. Plus, there are many who actually like the proposed design, including the members of the U.S. Fine Arts Commission, who voted unanimously in support of it.
A few Congressional representatives called for simply modifying Gehry’s design to ameliorate the concerns of the family. But Anne Eisenhower, another family member, said without the metal scrims, which she said Gehry doesn’t want to remove, the “design is gone,” meaning it would need to be totally redone. All this controversy makes us question whether a brilliant, young, up-and-coming landscape architect selected through a public design process could have succeeded in making everyone happy either.
Explore the concepts and add your thoughts about the designs and design process.
Image credit: Gehry Partners / Eisenhower Memorial Commission