In a 3-1 vote, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts approved the latest design incarnation of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial, which is to be located on a 4.5-acre site across Independence Avenue from the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. The design process for the $142-million contemporary memorial has been highly contentious, with architect Frank Gehry’s approach criticized for its scale, tone, and, especially, its large metal scrims supported by 80-foot-tall columns. In the past, these scrims have basically been characterized as fascist by Susan Eisenhower, the president’s granddaughter. University of Virginia professor Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA, the only landscape architect on the commission, was the sole no vote on the commission. With the three other positive votes though, the updated design now moves to the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), unless Congress stymies the process.
Executive Director of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission, Brig. Gen. Carl W. Reddel, USAF (Ret.) started his presentation by saying this would be a “refinement of the presentation the Eisenhower Memorial commission unanimously endorsed” at its June meeting.
Famed starchitect Frank Gehry then said they had circled back to portions of the original design and brought the memorial elements closer together in a more central location in the site. He said they’d been “guided by a lot of people’s interests, including the family,” and stressed they’ve “been trying to be good listeners” in this process. Susan Eisenhower and other D.C. historical design groups have been fiercely critical of Gehry’s design in the past. It’s not clear whether any of their concerns have been ameliorated with the new designs.
In his part of the presentation, John Bowers, Gehry’s project manager on the Memorial, explored the concept of the memorial as an urban park. Bowers called attention to the added green space and pedestrian pathways, as well as enhanced alleé that follows the diagonal of Maryland Avenue, “as if the street was there.”
Not really heard, however, were the words of new Fine Arts Commissioner Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA, who expressed her discomfort in approving the design. In Meyer’s opinion, the scheme couldn’t be reviewed as a whole because the landscape architecture hadn’t been fully developed. She said, the “success of this place” is going to be tied to how it functions as a park. AECOM appears to be the landscape architecture firm working on the project with Gehry.
Meyer felt strongly that it needed a “more robust architecture of trees.” She gave some suggestions to the design team, saying that the spacing of the trees along the alleé might be tightened up to reinforce the perspective, and the ground plane itself needs to be addressed at a deeper level.
Meyer was also concerned that the plantings of Midwestern prairie plants, recalling Eisenhower’s native Kansas, were generally placed under trees, effectively taking away people’s access to shade, something people really need in Washington’s summer heat.
Equating the incomplete landscape design to a building without a ceiling, she said, “the architecture of the trees needs more time and refinement.”
Meyer voted nay on approval of the design. She was the sole voice of dissent on the commission, which also consists of Vice-Chair Elizabeth Plater-Zybeck; Alex Krieger; and Edwin Schlossberg. The design was approved, with a suggestion by Krieger that Gehry remove the controversial screens on the east and west sides of the site, saying that buildings there already defined the space well enough.
Learn more about the early controversial design, which caused the House to intervene and actually vote to scrap the design and close the Eisenhower Memorial Commission. While more than $60 million has already been appropriated for the memorial, Congress can still put the kabosh on this project. The only thing that may be stopping this is a wholesale reset of the process would cost $17 million.
This guest post is by Heidi Petersen, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) and ASLA 2013 summer intern.
Image credits: (1-3) Eisenhower Memorial / Gehry Partners, (4) Eisenhower Memorial / Heidi Petersen. ASLA