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.


This entry was 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. Bookmark the permalink.

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