RealClearPolitics Profile of My Work for the National Civic Art Society

People Who Hate the Eisenhower Memorial

By Matthew Disler – July 19, 2015

Tourists milled around the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial last Friday, snapping photos in front of the 30-foot tall granite statue of the civil rights leader standing, arms folded, facing the Tidal Basin and the Washington Monument. Rapturous visitors wandered along the wall encircling the figure of King emerging from a mountainous slab of rock, engraved with a passage from his “I Have a Dream” speech: “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”

Justin Shubow was having none of it.

“I think it’s an embarrassment for numerous reasons,” he stated bluntly, ticking off a litany of criticisms of the monument’s design: it was sculpted by a Chinese artist who didn’t speak English or know much about King; it ignores his religious background; it makes him look too angry. Shubow termed the quotations “second-rate” (“It’s as if you go to the Lincoln Memorial and don’t get the Gettysburg Address”) and noted that King is not wearing his wedding band.

This fierce critic is the president of the National Civic Art Society, an organization with some 100 members that has been at the forefront of the opposition to Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial. The non-profit’s mission states that it is focused on educating the public about the classical tradition in Washington’s memorials and buildings and helping policymakers and planners continue this practice. Shubow and his organization decry the recent series of modernist memorials, which they think is highlighted garishly in famed architect Frank Gehry’s design for the Eisenhower Memorial.

It’s not the only one Justin Shubow disdains. The World War II Memorial? Shubow finds it “reminiscent of the architecture of fascist Italy,” with “Germanic wreaths,” “creepy eagles,” and a pointless fountain.

“It could easily be a Wehrmacht memorial,” he said.

Franklin Roosevelt’s Memorial? “I think it’s defeatist,” Shubow said, later adding, “The focal point [of the central statue] is his little dog. Everyone squats down and takes cutesy photos with it. It’s a piece of kitsch.”

The proposed Eisenhower Memorial, however, currently bears the brunt of his ire. Shubow and his group have become go-to sources for criticisms about the memorial in papers like The Washington PostNew York Times, and The Daily Beast, largely through their sheer doggedness. In 2011, the organization ran a shoestring-budget competition for an alternate to the Gehry design, “to suggest what a classical or traditional alternative might look like,” in Shubow’s words. He started submitting Freedom of Information Act requests about the Eisenhower Memorial Commission’s design competition, run by the General Services Administration, and in 2012 he penned a 154-page report disparaging the Gehry plan, from the design competition process (which critics like the group Right by Ike denounce as closed and unfair) to the ballooning costs for the project. In 2013, he testified against it in a House Committee on Natural Resources subcommittee hearing.

“I think we have been focused and unrelenting, and I think we’ve had an excellent champion with Justin Shubow, who really has been a very capable leader in this endeavor and has been tenacious in his fight,” said Milton Grenfell, a director of NCAS and a Washington, D.C.-based architect. “We’ve sort of moved into de facto leaders.”

The NCAS derides the Gehry memorial as ungainly and ill-befitting the man who led the Allied Forces to victory in Europe in World War II and became the 34th president. The design’s most recent iteration features a 447-foot long, eight-story metal tapestry depicting a landscape in Eisenhower’s hometown of Abilene, Kan., as well as two free-standing columns and a “core” of statues depicting Eisenhower as general, president, and a young man gazing out at his future achievements.

The memorial has changed substantially since it was introduced and given preliminary approval by the Commission of Fine Arts in 2011 (it needs approval from both the CFA and the National Capital Planning Commission before construction starts). Initially, metal tapestries surrounded the memorial’s inner core on three sides; the statues of Eisenhower as general and president were bas-reliefs; and the statue of Eisenhower in the center of the memorial depicted him as a “barefoot boy,” in reference to a speech he gave soon after World War II.

Soon after the design was unveiled, Eisenhower family members began voicing their disapproval. That December, a Washington Post story quoted Susan and Anne Eisenhower, two of Ike’s granddaughters, speaking against Gehry’s proposal. After the piece ran, David Eisenhower—the only member of the family who sat on the Eisenhower Memorial Commission—resigned, explaining that he was concerned about a potential conflict of interest between his position and his new role as chairman of the Eisenhower Foundation (which runs the president’s library and museum).

In June of this year, the House Committee on Appropriations stripped all funding for the commission for the next fiscal year in its Interior-EPA appropriations bill and called for a “reset” on the memorial process, while the Senate committee allotted $1 million. In contrast, the NCPC had said that more than $70 million would be needed this year for construction to start.

“We’re hoping that in the budget compromise, the Senate will side with the House and call for a total reset of the design with an open, democratic competition,” said Shubow. “And that’s going to include a classical design, one that comports with the best of our memorial tradition.”

On July 9, the NCPC approved the final design for the memorial, with only one member dissenting. Former Sen. Bob Dole was one of the leading voices in support of the memorial, calling on the commissioners in a written statement to approve the design quickly in the name of World War II veterans—“a million aging American heroes who revere Ike and want to honor him before we are all gone.”

In his remarks at that meeting, Shubow attacked the nighttime lighting plan, arguing that the steel tapestry “will look like a glowing billboard or movie screen. It’s distracting brightness will undeniably ruin the vista to the Capitol.”

Broadly, the NCAS’s principal grievance is aesthetic, although both Grenfell and Shubow admitted that their complaints go deeper. To them, Gehry’s memorial is too modernist, and in its attempts to be something new and never-before-seen it misses the point about what a monument is supposed to do.

A good monument, Grenfell explained, should be easy to understand and beautiful.

“In terms of beauty—frankly, most modern artists don’t even think of the word,” he continued. “They think of the word ‘challenging’ and ‘cutting edge’ or something, but not ‘beauty.’ I think we need to reconnect with the great tradition of monument and architecture to go forward—not to reject it wholeheartedly, but to continue with it and evolve with it the way civilizations have always addressed monuments and art.”

Shubow concurs. “For what the public knows, it’s mainly aesthetic,” he says. “But for people who understand more, it’s about the spending, and also there’s the competition.”

So how about the Jefferson Memorial, he is asked. Does that pass muster? Shubow doesn’t hesitate:  “I think it’s magnificent.”

Posted in civic architecture, classicism, congressional testimony, Eisenhower Memorial, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, Jr. Memorial, Modernism, monuments, National Capital Planning Commission, National Civic Art Society, World War II Memorial | Leave a comment

Speaking About Contemporary Federal Architecture on Apr. 28 in NYC

Salt Lake City Federal Courthouse -- Architect: Thomas Phifer and Partners, 2014
Salt Lake City Federal Courthouse — Architect: Thomas Phifer and Partners, 2014

On April 28 in New York City I’ll be speaking on “The Architecture of Democracy: How the Federal Government Chooses Architects.” My talk is being sponsored by the National Civic Art Society and First Things magazine, and will take place at the latter’s editorial offices. It’s free and open to the public.

My talk will be on the same subject I previously described here.

Date: Tuesday, April 28
Time: 6 PM reception; 6:30 PM lecture
Cost: Free
Location: First Things Editorial Offices, 35 E. 21st St., Sixth Floor, New York, NY 10010


Posted in courthouses, deconstructionism, deconstructivism, federal architecture, public talks, Thomas Phifer and Partners, ugliness | Leave a comment

Speaking in NYC About Federal Architecture on Dec. 17

San Francisco Federal Building -- Architect: Thom Mayne of Morphosis, 2007
San Francisco Federal Building — Architect: Thom Mayne of Morphosis, 2007

On December 17 at the National Arts Club in New York, I’m going to be speaking about federal architecture. Here’s the description from the club’s bulletin:

Justin Shubow: The Architecture of Democracy
Wednesday, December 17, 8:00 PM

The General Services Administration–which oversees the design of all federal buildings and courthouses, including the attendant artwork–is the largest patron of art and architecture in the United States. Its works are the physical embodiment of the federal government, and thus have great symbolic significance and evince America.

In 1994, GSA created the Design Excellence Program to overcome what it perceived to have been the mediocre, uninspiring buildings the government had constructed over the prior decades. The program subscribes to the Guiding Principles of Federal Architecture, which then-presidential aide Daniel Patrick Moynihan created in 1962: “It should be our object to meet the test of Pericles’ evocation to the Athenians: ‘We do not imitate–for we are a model to others.’”  The program seeks out “innovation” and “creativity,” and has been successful in hiring some of the world’s most esteemed and cutting-edge architects.

This evening, Justin Shubow will discuss the history and evolution of the GSA’s architectural principles and the agency’s contributions to the American landscape.  Mr. Shubow is President of the National Civic Art Society, an educational non-profit dedicated to promoting the classical and humanistic tradition in public art and architecture.  Join us as we explore America’s civic architecture.

Tuscaloosa Federal Courthouse -- Thomas Beeby of HBRA Architects, 2012
Tuscaloosa Federal Courthouse — Thomas Beeby of HBRA Architects, 2012
Posted in architecture, civic architecture, classicism, courthouses, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, deconstructionism, deconstructivism, federal architecture, GSA's Design Excellence Program, Guiding Principles of Federal Architecture, HBRA Architects, Morphosis, National Civic Art Society, Pericles, public talks, Thom Mayne, Thomas Beeby | Leave a comment

Video of the National Civic Art Society’s U.S. House Briefing on the Eisenhower Memorial

On July 18, 2014, I spoke at the National Civic Art Society’s U.S. House Briefing on the Eisenhower Memorial. Also speaking were Bruce Cole — former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and President Obama’s appointee to the Eisenhower Memorial Commission — and art and architecture critic Catesby Leigh.

Posted in Bruce Cole, Catesby Leigh, civic architecture, Eisenhower Memorial, monuments, public talks | Leave a comment

Delivering the Keynote at Siena Heights University on Sept. 16

Siena-Heights-UniversityOn September 16, I’m going to be the keynote speaker at Common Dialogue Day at Siena Heights University in Adrian, Michigan. It’s a day the school sets aside each fall to discuss a major theme. The theme this year is “Getting Perspective,” which I will discuss both philosophically and architecturally. After the lecture, students, faculty, and members of the local community will head to breakout sessions to continue the conversation. It’s an honor to have been invited to speak.

Posted in public talks | Leave a comment

Speaking on Capitol Hill About the Eisenhower Memorial on July 18

Capitol Hill Luncheon and
Briefing on the Eisenhower Memorial
July 18, 2014, at Noon
Rayburn House Office Building, room 2247
The National Civic Art Society cordially invites you to a lunch briefing on the planned National Eisenhower Memorial. The briefing will cover the status of the imperiled design by Frank Gehry and the alternatives before Congress. A box lunch will be provided.

Speakers will include:


 The Hon. Bruce Cole, the former Chairman of the National Endowment of the Humanities, and President Obama’s appointee to the Eisenhower Memorial Commission



 Justin Shubow, President of the National Civic Art Society



Catesby Leigh, art and architecture critic

Background:  After 15 years and $40 million spent, the wildly unpopular design for the Eisenhower Memorial is on life support. Not a shovel of dirt has been turned, Congress zeroed all construction funding, and the National Capital Planning Commission denied preliminary approval. Most recently, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and Environment voted to eliminate the proposal altogether.


Designed by the fashionable “starchitect” Frank Gehry, the plan been criticized from all sides — including the Eisenhower family (see John Eisenhower’s letter here) as well as by numerous members of Congress, pundits, and art critics of all political and artistic orientations (see compilation here). Opponents of the design believe that a more traditional design selected by an open, democratic competition would cost far less and be completed faster.


Projected Cost $142 million — and threatens to rise. 


Those Invited to Attend: Members of the House and Senate and upper-level staff with responsibilities in the arts, public lands, GSA, the Park Service, and related agencies. (No interns please.) Also welcome are: Members and staff of the National Capital Planning Commission, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, concerned citizens, and the media.


R.S.V.P.: If you have not already done so, please reserve your place at Eventbrite as soon as possible. Space is limited.  Closest Metro is Capitol South. Call or email Fran Griffin at 703-255-2211 with any questions.

Posted in architecture, Bruce Cole, Catesby Leigh, Eisenhower Memorial, National Civic Art Society, public talks, Washington, D.C. | Leave a comment

In Which I Persuade the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts

Me testifying to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts on November 21, 2013.
Me testifying to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts on November 21, 2013

Representing the National Civic Art Society, on November 21, 2013 I testified about the Eisenhower Memorial at the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, the aesthetic guardians of Washington, D.C. The text of my speech is below.

In the ensuing discussion, a number of the commissioners referred positively to my remarks, and two said they found my handout particularly persuasive. At one point Commissioner Alex Krieger, a professor of design at Harvard (and a friend of Gehry’s), said:

The fact that you would be approaching a memorial looking as this describes–this is very effective [pointing to my handout], actually, especially the second and third page–you are approaching this memorial with a gigantic column in your view of the memorial. It just seems actually, at that moment, a lot less poetic . . .

At the end of the meeting, Chairman Rusty Powell, the director of the National Gallery of Art, held up my handout and said “this was a telling photograph.”

All seven commissioners criticized the design–some of them in withering terms. The transcript does not do their comments justice. You must listen to the recording (84-meg MP3) to hear just how harsh their tone was. The commissioners’ discussion begins at the 51:00 mark.

*    *    *

Mr. Chairman, distinguished commissioners, my name is Justin Shubow. I’m here on behalf of the National City Art Society.  I’m glad to see in attendance today Bruce Cole, President Obama’s recent appointment to the Eisenhower Commission. Bruce also sits on our Board of Advisors.

As you may know, materials experts from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Smithsonian, and the Department of Defense have expressed serious concerns about the durability and maintenance of the steel tapestries. Their fears are well-founded.

Thanks to a FOIA request we submitted to the National Park Service, we just learned that according to that agency six panels of the tapestries will need to be replaced every five years. Furthermore, approximately 750 support cables will need to be replaced every 25 years, and 250 of those cables run the entire length of the tapestry. They are 444-feet long. We cannot think of another Memorial whose artwork and very structural armature will need to be replaced on periodic basis.

I will focus my testimony on the most important action item from the last Fine Arts Commission meeting regarding the Memorial, namely, the need to review the scale and the placement of the columns, particularly those on the east and west tapestries, Commissioners Krieger, [Elizabeth] Plater-Zyberk, and [Philip] Freelon expressed strong doubts in this area, and it is imperative that the Commission follow up on this crucial issue. I would first like to respond to the applicant’s claim that the column that violates the Independence Avenue setback should not be treated as a building. They make this claim in their booklet.

At a previous meeting of this body, Mr. Gehry specifically said about the columns, “They are almost buildings. They are huge in scheme, so they are more like buildings.” The applicant also defends the invasive column by noting that the street wall is already uneven. This is like a dentist saying, “Well, you have lots of snaggly teeth, so it’s OK if we add one that sticks out far more than all the others.” And if the setback doesn’t matter, why did the applicant make sure not to violate it in all of their prior designs?

The location of that column also violates one of the very principles agreed upon during site selection in 2006. At that time, the Park Service, in association with the Eisenhower Commission, prepared an Environmental Assessment that includes a list of constraints that the Memorial must adhere to. It speaks of the need for the memorial to “conform to the established setbacks of surrounding buildings to maintain the integrity of L’Enfant Streets, including Independence Avenue.”

For the benefit of those who did not attend the last meeting regarding the Memorial, allow me to detail what occurred. Commissioner Krieger, after eloquently describing President Eisenhower’s humility, said that the first impression pedestrians will get of the Memorial was not “one of humility” and is thus incongruous with who Eisenhower was. He said, “The memorial sort of shifts to not being humble enough when you see those side panels and when you imagine that the vast majority of people who are approaching this memorial might first see the back of a column, a very large column, a very sort of unprecedented column unrelated to capitals or buildings. This is a part of the memorial that to me seems now the weakest.

What triggered Mr. Krieger’s remarks was a rendering showing the Memorial from the southwest corner of the Air and Space Museum. He found that rendering in the design booklet the applicant submitted for the Fine Arts Commission meeting. However, the applicant tellingly did not include that image in the booklet for this meeting, nor have they included it in their presentation today, nor downstairs. Indeed, the applicant has previously created a number of directly relevant renderings showing what that column will look like to visitors, yet they have not shown any of them. If I may distribute images of that rendering from the booklet last time. [distributed handout]

NCAS Handout Page 1 NCAS-Eisenhower-Memorial-handout-US-Commission-Fine-Arts-page2 NCAS-Eisenhower-Memorial-handout-US-Commission-Fine-Arts-page3

The first page here shows the rendering that opened Mr. Krieger’s eyes. I’ve included two other renderings from the applicant from similar viewpoints.

After having critiqued the unhumble columns, Mr. Krieger went still further and asked the applicant to reconsider the side panels altogether. He explained that those panels aren’t necessary to establish the urban room since, “The sides seem to be framed reasonably well by large scale buildings.” Ironically, he said it is the side of the memorial facing Independence Avenue that is poorly framed and for that reason the applicant’s prior design, which had those two tapestries turned parallel to the Avenue, was to that extent better.

Commissioner Plater-Zyberk seconded him on the side panels. She said, “I think some of the points Alex has raised on the side panels may in fact be a very good suggestion because the original concept of enclosing those four acres and making the precinct has already been largely taken away. In fact, it may be becoming much stronger in thinking of it as primarily a park with a backdrop.” She also criticized the scope of the design, which is so big that it could two Lincoln Memorials. “Maybe this would be a good lesson for the future about big can be too big and hard to deal with. There has been memorial sprawl among the various monuments that have been built to recent decades, that this in a sense is part of.”

Commissioner Freelon agreed, “Some of these scale issues have to do with the fact that the site is so large. I understand that the screens were reduced and the columns were reduced, but perhaps not enough to make a difference. So I would concur with my colleague about the scale issue and also maybe not the need to constrain it with the side panels.” At the conclusion of the meeting when discussing the phrasing of the motion to be voted on, Mr. Krieger said in no uncertain terms, “The side column I want to get rid of, not the tapestries. But, they seem to be related to each other.” Ms. Plater-Zyberk seconded, “I think that comment should stand as a request for consideration of that. I am supportive of it.”

I look forward to hearing the Commission’s discussion of that action item, particularly since the applicant has not altered the side panels since the last meeting, nor has it been forthcoming about what they will truly look like. I do not need to tell you that this Commission is vested with the authority, and the responsibility, to protect the L’Enfant and McMillan plans, and to ensure that Eisenhower gets a Memorial respectful of his humility. Only the elimination of the side panels can make that possible. Thank you.


Posted in Alex Krieger, architecture, Bruce Cole, civic architecture, Eisenhower Memorial, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, FOIA investigation, Frank Gehry, L'Enfant Plan, McMillan Plan, National Civic Art Society, National Gallery of Art, National Park Service, Philip Freelon, Rusty Powell, U.S. Commission of Fine Arts | Leave a comment

Speaking About Architecture and Nihilism at the Michael Oakeshott Association Conference on Sept. 28

The dashing philosopher Michael Oakeshott

On Saturday, September 28, 2013, I’ll be giving a talk at the biennial conference of the Michael Oakeshott Association. (Full conference program here.) The theme of the conference, which is being held at Colorado College, is Modernity and Its Discontents. Here’s the abstract of my presentation, which alludes to Oakeshott’s essay “The Tower of Babel”:

The Tower of Wreckage: The Triumph of Nihilism in Architecture

Outside of academia, architecture is the field in which deconstructionism has achieved the greatest success: buildings that vandalize our cities and monuments that subvert the very ideals they are supposed to represent. The effect is to disorient, threaten, and demoralize the public, which has no choice but to be exposed to such structures. Deconstructionist architects are praised by global elites, win the profession’s highest awards, and obtain many of the most important commissions, including those where the client is the state. If architecture is the embodiment of a civilization, what does such actually existing nihilism portend for the future? What is to be done?

Focusing more on Oakeshott’s political philosophy, in 2005 I published a review-essay in The Common Review titled “Philosophers and Kings: A Review of Paul Franco’s Michael Oakeshott: An Introduction.” And in 2012, I contributed “Oakeshott on the Rule of Law” to Liberty Fund’s Library of Law and Liberty.

Posted in architecture, civic architecture, deconstructionism, deconstructivism, Michael Oakeshott, nihilism, political philosophy, vandalism | 2 Comments

Lambasting Gehry’s Ike Memorial as the Architect Looked On

Me Testifying to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts About the Eisenhower Memorial as Frank Gehry Looks On (bottom left). Commission Secretary Tom Luebke Holds the Mic.
Me testifying to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts as Frank Gehry looks on (bottom left). Commission Secretary Tom Luebke holds the mic.

Here’s the National Civic Art Society’s press release regarding my July 18, 2013 testimony to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. My speech was quoted by the Associated Press, U.S. News, and the Washington Times. Curbed blogged about it under the headline “Nine Brutal Lines From the Latest Eisenhower Memorial Critique.”


National Civic Art Society Slams Ike Memorial at Fine Arts Commission, Says Central Statue Belongs in a Snow-globe

On Thursday, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts–the federal agency tasked with protecting the aesthetics of the National Mall–took up the planned National Eisenhower Memorial.

Frank Gehry presented his latest design, the focal point of which is now a life-size statue, seated on a wall, of a lounging teen Eisenhower “daydreaming” about his future.

After Gehry’s presentation, National Civic Art Society president Justin Shubow delivered a statement (included below) lambasting the design as the architect looked on from just a few feet away (see above photo).

Fine Arts Commissioners Alex Krieger and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk said they agreed with Shubow’s concerns about the titanic size of the Memorial’s “columns,” though they said, diplomatically, that they did not want to associate themselves with his remarks. Due to the their concerns, both called for Gehry to remove the Memorial’s enormous side panels (each bigger than a basketball court)–even though Plater-Zyberk actually approved them at the Commission’s prior meeting. By opposing those panels, the Commissioners are putting into question Gehry’s very concept of the Memorial as an “urban room” or a “temple with an object.” They are backtracking on over two-and-half years of planning and approvals. Krieger also said he agreed with Shubow that the teen Eisenhower statue is too small.

Although the Commission ended up voting in favor of the Memorial design, it approved only an anodyne generality of a generality–and even then, without unanimity.  To quote the official record:

Alex Krieger:  “Motion to approve the concept for the memorial and the general disposition of the landscape elements pending all those qualifications that you [Secretary Thomas Luebke] identified.”

Motion is seconded by [Commissioner] Phil Freelon.

After discussion by [Commissioner] Beth Meyer on her objection to the schematic quality of the landscape design, Krieger clarifies that the motion is for “general support for the general organization of the site plan.”

Motion carries, 3-1.

Here is Shubow’s speech as delivered:

Thank you, Madam Vice Chairman, for allowing me to speak to today.  It is an honor to speak in front of the appointed guardians of the National Mall. My name is Justin Shubow.  I speak on behalf of the National Civic Art Society, a nonprofit dedicated to the classical and humanistic tradition in public art and architecture.

To use the terms Mr. Bowers [Gehry’s partner] employed last month at the Eisenhower Memorial Commission meeting, the focal point of the latest design is now “more of a teenager dreaming about his future.”  It is “a much more casual position and figure.”  In other words, Eisenhower is depicted as a lounging adolescent, a juvenile—a teen dreamer.

He is an unrecognizable, generic figurine without personality, character, or gravitas.  He inspires not a feeling of awe but of “aww, shucks.”  What we see is a not a historical individual, but a stock character in a fable or an episode of “America’s Got Talent.”  The statue is a sentimental piece of kitsch that belongs in a snow-globe.

The teen dreamer is not even an original depiction of Eisenhower.  In Abilene there already is a so-called “Little Ike” statue of a life-size adolescent seated on a wall.  That folksy work was sponsored by the Abilene Kid’s Council.  And not uncoincidentally, the Eisenhower Commission has repeatedly stressed that children are the main intended audience for the Memorial.  Yet memorials should appeal to all ages. The Lincoln Memorial engages children—and adults—without the need for an overly literal, Disneyfied diorama at its core.

Although in politics Eisenhower played on his mythical bucolic roots, as far back as 1942 he complained in private about what he called the media’s stereotype of him as a “Kansas farmerboy.”  Surely we all know that this misconception about his identity was disproven once and for all in the 1982 book The Hidden-Hand Presidency.

I don’t have time to discuss Maryland Avenue sightlines in detail, but I’d like to note that in the slide Mr. Bowers showed us of the view up that avenue toward the Capitol, the Memorial’s columns were hidden by trees in full bloom.  I’d like to see that same view in winter.  I’d also note that in that slide the trees clearly encroached on the viewshed to the Capitol.

I do, however, urge this Commission to examine the Memorial the way it is intended to be seen—through one’s iPhone. [Pulls out iPhone and peers through it.]  I speak of the so-called “E-Memorial” component.  Via augmented reality, images of war will be superimposed on the Memorial landscape.  Kids no doubt will find the battle scenes super cool, and super solemn and super contemplative.  Maybe the electronic goggles will show that one of the statues is in fact barefoot.

But perhaps this is all beside the point.  When looking at the gigantic Memorial as a whole, the focal point vanishes to nothing.  The towers looming over the boy are so titanic that former Fine Arts Commissioner Diana Balmori said, “You would feel like an ant next to them.” At 80-feet-tall by 10-feet-wide, the towers are even bigger than the interior columns of the building we’re in [the National Building Museum], which are 75-feet-tall by 8-feet-wide.  Not just crushingly inhumane in size, the pillars exhibit as much artistry as an incomplete highway overpass.

Those pillars uphold the gargantuan so-called steel “tapestry,” which Mr. Gehry and his team have variously called a “curtain,” a “shroud,” and a “diaphanous membrane.”  Depicted on that veritable iron curtain is a landscape of barren trees in permanent winter—an allegory for hopelessness and death.

In sum, Mr. Gehry’s design is topsy-turvy in its scale and symbolism.  By inverting the values of our commemorative tradition, it shows itself to be a genuine work of deconstruction.  It is a temple, yes, but a destroyed one.  It has no roof, no front, no steps, no walls.  Living nature has reclaimed it from within. And the Holy of Holies, the sacred object in the temple, is missing.  It has been replaced with a profanation, a great man cut down to size.  The Memorial is a temple to nothingness, a remnant of a ruined civilization.

At a prior meeting of this body, then-Commissioner Michael McKinnell sensed as much.  He said, “[I]f I can be facetious, the tapestry, when you and I are long gone, will disintegrate and the columns will be left and it will be like [the Roman ruins of] Paestum.”  So much for the permanence of the tapestries.

We believe that imagery suggestive of an America in collapse makes a mockery of a national memorial and vandalizes Eisenhower’s memory.

For these reasons, we respectfully request that you scrap the design in its entirety. Thank you.

Posted in Alex Krieger, architecture, civic architecture, classicism, deconstructionism, deconstructivism, Eisenhower Memorial, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Frank Gehry, National Civic Art Society, nihilism, U.S. Commission of Fine Arts | Leave a comment

Why Congress Should Support a New Eisenhower Memorial

On March 19 2013, in front of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation, I testified along with Rep. Darrell Issa on a bill to scrap Gehry’s design for the National Eisenhower Memorial. The New York Times and Financial Times quoted my testimony, which I turned into the essay below.

You can find a video of the hearing here. I begin at the 54:30 mark. At 1:09:00, Rep. Tom McClintock quotes my written testimony on the essential nature of monuments and comments, after which he comments:

That is the most beautiful description of what we ought to be focused on that I’ve seen. In whatever future legislation we adopt, this ought to be the preamble of it. I want to commend you on the most clear-headed statement I’ve seen on the subject.

After the hearing, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) attempted but failed to rebut my criticism of that organization’s defense of the Memorial’s closed, undemocratic competition.

*    *    *


Why Congress Should Support a New Eisenhower Memorial

By Justin Shubow

May 8, 2013

The proposed design for the Eisenhower Memorial should be rejected for one that accords with our capital’s classical tradition of architecture and with the nature of monuments themselves—to make a simple, clear statement easily accessible to the public.

* * *

As an educational nonprofit dedicated to the classical and humanistic tradition in public art and architecture, the National Civic Art Society (which I direct) believes that our most important monuments play an essential role in defining our national identity and crystallizing our historical memory. Civic art and architecture are the mirror in which the civilization sees itself.

In 1999 Congress authorized the creation of a national Memorial to President Dwight D. Eisenhower and created the Eisenhower Memorial Commission to plan and build it. In 2009, after a closed “competition” that some believe was rigged, the commission selected Frank Gehry, arguably the world’s most famous and fashionable architect, to design the Memorial. His grandiose, deconstructionist proposal—now estimated to cost a staggering $142 million—would fill a four-acre square just south of the Air and Space Museum. His plan is so big it would fit two Lincoln Memorials.

One year ago it was conventional wisdom that the design was a done deal, a fait accompli soon to be cemented with quite real facts on the ground. But what has been groundbreaking is the surge of attention from Congress and the public, and the ensuing barrage of opposition. Even an article in the New Yorker, that indicator of sophisticated opinion, last month called for “rebooting” the Memorial and explained, “in true bipartisan spirit, almost everyone hates it.”

How did we get to this turning point? The bipartisan Eisenhower Commission—comprising four senators, four House members, and four presidential appointees—does not contain a single connoisseur of art and architecture. (By contrast, the commission overseeing the Jefferson Memorial included architect Fiske Kimball, a renowned scholar of American and Jeffersonian architecture.) This lack of expertise left the Eisenhower Commission vulnerable to the influence of architectural high priests and mandarins who have an agenda antithetical to the taste and values of the American people.

The commission made a fateful error by choosing to use the General Service Administration’s Design Excellence Program for the competition. That program was created to select architects for federal office buildings and courthouses, not memorials. The very creator of Design Excellence, former GSA chief architect Edward Feiner, strongly urged the commission not to use the program.

The decision to use Design Excellence represents an utter reversal of our tradition of competitions for national monuments and memorials. Whereas formerly we held competitions of designs, the commission ran a competition of designers. At no point in the competition was an entrant required to submit an actual proposal for the memorial. Instead the emphasis was on the entrants’ previous works and reputations—all factors that favor the architectural elite.

But one does not need to be an established architect to come up with a brilliant design for a memorial. One can be a student, a sculptor, an amateur. The winner of the 1902 open competition for the (superb but overlooked) Ulysses S. Grant Memorial was Henry M. Shrady, a self-taught unknown who went on to become one of the leading sculptors of his time. Likewise, when Maya Lin won the open, blindly reviewed competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, she was a mere college student. A present-day Shrady or Lin could not even have entered the Eisenhower competition.

Not only was the competition limited to architects with substantial portfolios, it was a closed competition that garnered a mere 44 entries. This is hundreds fewer than the numbers of entries in open competitions for previous national memorials. The process was also secretive. To this day we do not know the identities of all the entrants; we have never seen what Gehry submitted; and we do not know who sat on the evaluation boards. However, so far we have been able to determine that the process violated GSA’s own acquisition rules. For instance, the evaluation board was stacked to give the client more weight than usual, which would have helped the commission achieve a pre-arranged outcome.

At the very first meeting of the commission, all the way back in 2001, its chairman Rocco C. Siciliano said it should choose someone like Frank Gehry. And lo and behold, eight years later Gehry won the “competition.” This is the same Gehry who has repeatedly said he does not like entering competitions since he does not like losing. Also note that Siciliano, who serves with Gehry as a trustee of the architect’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, had hired or worked with Gehry on three prior occasions.  Informed of such red flags, Representative Darrell Issa, in his capacity as Chairman of the House Oversight Committee, has been investigating the propriety of the competition.

The former chief architect of GSA is not the only distinguished opponent of the selection process. Another is Paul Spreiregen, who is perhaps the leading expert on design competitions and author of a book on the subject. Spreiregen served as an adviser for design competitions in Washington, D.C., including the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the World Bank Headquarters. He wrote in the Washington Post:

Why weren’t all American designers given the opportunity to submit proposals for the Eisenhower memorial? The method for doing that is a very well-organized and well-managed open-design competition. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Pentagon 9/11 Memorial, the 9/11 Memorial in New York City and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis are ample evidence of the reliability of open-design competitions. The design process for the Eisenhower memorial should have been open to all. It still can be, if the Gehry design is rejected.

In the 1990s, when the commission overseeing the National World War II Memorial competition held a closed competition nearly identical to the one for the Eisenhower Memorial, there was widespread public outcry and the original competition was scrapped in favor of an open one. The Eisenhower competition has ended up in exactly the same situation. Failing to understand the past, the Eisenhower Commission was condemned to repeat it.

The result of the poorly run, undemocratic Eisenhower Memorial competition was the bizarre choice of Frank Gehry, an architect known for his subversive deconstructionist style, project-cost overruns, and prior design flaws. Putting aside aesthetics, his poor performance record alone ought to have weighed against him, according to GSA’s own standards. In the 1990s, before the Design Excellence Program went into effect, Gehry said, “My name was put up for a courthouse, and the General Services Administration . . . just laughed at the idea.” On another occasion he said, “The American government won’t even hire me to do anything. In fact we submit for courthouses every once in a while, and we get funny letters back, and people on the selection committee, the GSA guys, just guffaw to think of someone like me doing the project.”

Gehry has well summarized his deconstructionist philosophy:

Life is chaotic, dangerous, and surprising. Buildings should reflect that.


I try to rid myself and the other members of the firm of the burden of the culture and look for new ways to approach the work. I want to be open-ended. There are no rules, no right or wrong. I’m confused as to what’s ugly and what’s pretty. [emphasis added]

To be clear, this relativist, if not nihilist, philosophy constitutes a positive feature in the Design Excellence Program, which is explicitly intended to favor “innovation” and “creativity”—buzzwords meaning avant-garde and radical architecture—and to disfavor tradition, the classical American style, and anything “too rooted in the past.”

As one might expect, the style, materials, content, and scale of Gehry’s proposal are totally antithetical to and discordant with the National Mall and the Monumental Core. Indeed, Gehry has repeatedly stated his rejection of harmony as a principle of architecture and urban planning. The largest element of the Memorial’s ugly design is a gargantuan “tapestry” of industrial steel cables. The screen is larger than the iconic Hollywood sign in Los Angeles. Viewed close up, the twisted steel resembles Medusa’s serpentine head. We fear that the tapestry would come to be called the “iron curtain.”

The main tapestry and two secondary ones nearby are supported by ten enormous pillars (so-called “columns”) 80 feet tall and 11 to 12 feet in diameter. They are bare cylinders without any capitals or decoration. Conjuring visions of an incomplete highway overpass or Soviet missile silos, the oppressive pillars would make visitors feel like ants.

Criticism of the memorial has come from architects, pundits, and critics of all political and architectural orientations. Opponents include the entire Eisenhower family, George Will, George Weigel, Roger Scruton, David Brooks, John Fund, David Frum, Stephen M. Walt, Ross Douthat, Pulitzer Prize-winner David Shribman, and former National Endowment for the Humanities Director Bruce Cole.

Newspapers that have come out against the design include the New York Post, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Washington Examiner, and the Kearney Hub (of Nebraska). Articles in opposition have appeared in The New Republic, the Wichita Eagle, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Boston Globe, and Human Events.  (A 190-page compilation of articles critical of the Memorial can be found at our website,

As if this criticism were not enough, the durability of Gehry’s experimental structure—a cable wire mesh suspended in tension—has been called into question by the government’s own materials experts. The Department of the Army’s expert, for instance, recommended that an identical set of duplicate tapestries be built to serve as enormous spare parts when the tapestry becomes degraded or damaged. This would be so costly as to be unfeasible.

In short, the memorial design and process have been wrong in their aesthetics, wrong in their economics, and wrong in their physics. And perhaps Rep. Issa will find that the competition was wrong in its ethics.

Since Gehry and the Eisenhower Commission show zero willingness to back down, Congress has no choice but to go back to the drawing board and pass a bill to ensure that President Eisenhower gets the memorial he deserves. We must keep in mind that the client here is not GSA, not Gehry, not the commission.  It is Congress, and ultimately the American people. Nothing could be more democratic than an open competition that provides opportunity for comment from both political leaders and the public. At the same time, it is essential that there be guidance from refined judges of taste and learned experts of the caliber of Fiske Kimball.

Regrettably, the legislation must make explicit what used to be assumed without question. Consider the bill that created the national memorial commemorating the passengers and crew killed on United Airlines Flight 93 on September 11, 2001. Congress explicitly stated, “For the purposes of this Act, the terrorists . . . shall not be considered passengers or crew of that flight.” That Congress felt the need to insert this language shows that something has gone terribly awry among the artistic and architectural elite.

What then are the universal requirements of a monument? Monuments are civic art that cause us solemnly to reflect on who we are and what we value. They are heroic in scale, timeless, and possess dignity, even grandeur. They present an ideal to which we aspire rather than warts-and-all reality. Sacred and transcendent, they inspire instead of demoralizing us. They must honor, not merely remember, their subjects. They must be made of noble materials—such as marble and bronze—that have proven their durability over millennia, not industrial materials such as steel and concrete.

Monuments are permanent and must appear permanent, unlike a scrim or a shroud. Monuments ought to be clear and unequivocal in their meaning: They should evince a few simple ideas in a way accessible to ordinary Americans. They must be legible without a guide or key, and certainly without a visitor center or iPad.

Monuments speak to us even without signage. You can be inspired by a monument even if you do not know who is represented or what that person did. Monuments are not museums and they should not try to tell stories. They are not inkblots that leave things to the interpretation of the visitor. Monuments are statements, not question marks.

In addition to satisfying all of these requirements, the Eisenhower Memorial must continue our founders’ classical vision for the nation’s capital as embodied in the L’Enfant and McMillan Plans and the design of our core buildings of government, as well as the best of our tradition of presidential memorials. There is no better way to honor Eisenhower the general, the president, and the man than in the unmistakably American idiom that we love and cherish.

A traditional man of old-fashioned virtue, President Eisenhower disdained Modern art and architecture, which he did not believe represented the taste and values of the American people. He warned in 1962, “We see our very art forms so changed that we seem to have forgotten the works of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. . . . What has happened to our concept of beauty and decency and morality?”

America can and will build Eisenhower a monument that will prove his fears unfounded. The talent is there. Now is the time to find it.


Posted in American Institute of Architects (AIA), civic architecture, congressional testimony, deconstructionism, deconstructivism, Eisenhower Memorial, Fiske Kimball, Frank Gehry, harmony, Henry M. Shrady, Jefferson Memorial, Modernism, monuments, National Civic Art Society, Ulysses S. Grant Memorial, United Airlines Flight 93 Memorial | Tagged , | Leave a comment