Eisenhower Memorial Controversy Grows

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

9 thoughts on “Eisenhower Memorial Controversy Grows

  1. Gerald Forsburg 03/20/2012 / 10:41 pm

    It is sad that America’s leaders are using a process for selecting the design of this memorial that leaves out America’s undiscovered talent! How Un-American.

  2. Mike Penque 03/21/2012 / 6:14 am

    As my opinion, I would offer you to make a competition between designers. And then choose for example 5 to 10 different interesting projects for that monument and let the commission of the Eisenhower family choose which one they like most. For the winner offer a prize: either study, money, job or whatever. That way family will take an action in choosing the project and may be satisfied by their choice.

  3. T. de Lempicka 03/21/2012 / 10:44 am

    The debate about this memorial has become absurd. Yes, the scale of the memorial is too large (sorry, but Ike doesn’t warrant this much square footage), and it’s not a particularly good Gehry design, but the idea of building something classical instead is just ridiculous. It’s not the 19th century!

  4. Alex 03/21/2012 / 2:51 pm

    I know that Susan Eisenhower (granddaughter) disapproves of architect F. Gehry’s design. Eisenhower deserves a much better memorial for his accomplishments.

  5. Christine G. H. Franck 03/22/2012 / 6:12 am

    Correction, the metal screens are mounted 15 feet off the ground, so they really are 80 feet tall, as noted in Susan Eisenhower’s testimony. Gehry’s design is incomprehensible to most citizens and not a memorial, rather it is a theme park of ideas with no center or focus. AND this mess will cost us at least $112 million, $35 million of which has already been spent on little more than a schematic design which has been panned by all except a few of Gehry’s lackeys and some in the architectural media. It’s time to add this design to the “Unbuilt Washington” exhibit. Good try, but let’s move on.

  6. Nomi Waksberg 03/22/2012 / 8:19 am

    Susan Eisenhower’s reference to the Roosevelt memorial is a key statement. Not only because she points out a more democratic process of involvement in the final decision, but because she (and I presume others in the family) have taken time to consider what a memorial should mean to them. The Roosevelt Memorial is a wonderful place to contemplate the greatness of this president. I don’t think the Eisenhower project, as described here, offers that type of inspiration.
    Yes – do start over, starting with the “concepts” of what is important.

  7. William Heimiller 04/03/2012 / 2:46 am

    Why did the process change?…from open design competition to closed selection. The standard process of open design competition has been astonishingly successful, and as a former soldier and designer I have special affection for the Vietnam memorial which would not be if not for open design. As an American, I felt enormous pride that Maya Lin’s discovered talent led to such a perfect design.

    A process doesn’t change by chance or randomness. Process remains by default, and especially if it is successful, as the open process has been. This means some outside force/mechanism imposed itself on this process. I wish the best for the National Civic Art Society, which has launched an investigation into the matter. Maybe some calls to Congress could help save Ike’s memory.

  8. jene26 05/02/2012 / 12:09 pm

    This is an expensive memorial but is going to be perfect once its finished. People should stop complaining about such trivial things.

  9. Herb Zeller 07/14/2012 / 1:01 pm

    If anything the Gehry design compares well with the architecture of the 40s, 50s and 60s, the period when bold brutal concrete buildings inspired by the French starchitect of the time, Le Corbusier, were all the rage. It is truly a non-sequitor for Gehry, whose free-formed sculptural buildings resemble crumpled wads of paper or crushed cans. Gehry must have turned this project over to one of his junior architects whose inspiration draws from sports megaplexes complete with baseball backstop, drive-in theatre screen and electronic billboard.

    Lets be thankful it’s not a reconstituted piece of a classical temple. Unfortunately, it approaches the banal pile of granite blocks, waterfalls, pools and ugly statuary honoring FDR which, given similar elements at the ML King memorial, is probably the lowest common denominator of acceptability in bureaucratic, politically correct, design-by-committee Washington. It is not a place for a starchitect to do his thing.

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