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.

This entry was 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. Bookmark the permalink.

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