Published September 27, 2017
If anything graphically illustrates the dysfunction of Washington, D.C., these days, it’s the sad tale that might be entitled “The Thousand and One Lives of the Frank Gehry Design for the Eisenhower Memorial.” As I’ve explained in this space before, the Gehry design will produce a memorial that is a national embarrassment, in part because the Gehry design is a repellant monstrosity, and in part because the design is the result of a deeply flawed, if not corrupt, process that the Congress has thus far refused to remedy. Now, it seems there may be a last chance to avert this aesthetic and fiscal debacle, at the October 5 meeting of the National Capital Planning Commission. Perhaps the commissioners, unlike the politicians thus far, will take the following into consideration when considering the proposed Eisenhower Memorial.
The memorial as proposed is a monument to Frank Gehry, not to Dwight D. Eisenhower. The Gehry design — a four-acre site that could accommodate both the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument — is an exercise in postmodern grandiosity that is wholly out of sync with the character of the man it purports to honor.
The centerpiece of the revised Gehry design — a 440-foot woven metal screen that claims to depict Pointe du Hoc and Omaha Beach on D-Day — resembles a rat’s nest that will, inevitably, become a trap for debris caught in the breeze and a mausoleum for dead birds.
The Gehry design’s other principal features — gargantuan, six-story columns — are far more evocative of supports for highway overpasses than of anything else. And while it’s true that Ike took the lead in creating the Interstate Highway System, an elementary sense of public aesthetics suggests that a memorial to him ought not immediately conjure up mental images of the notorious “Mixing Bowl” at the intersection of I-95, I-395, and I-495 in Springfield, Va.
The less than edifying process that has produced the Gehry design has been rammed through Congress with little or no attention paid to the criticisms of the design that have come from across the spectrum of American opinion, in a display of bipartisan and cross-cultural accord that is truly remarkable: As The New Yorker wrote of the Gehry design, everyone hates it. This misbegotten and mishandled affair has already cost $105 million, and the completion of the Eisenhower Memorial according to the Gehry design will end up costing far more — and that’s before considering the maintenance costs involved in servicing that vast metal scrim that is Gehry’s aesthetic signature.
President Trump (whose campaign Frank Gehry compared to Nazi rallies) or Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke could step in, even at this late stage, and compel both the Eisenhower Memorial Commission and the Congress to think again. Any such action would be more likely if the National Capital Planning Commission were to give a thumbs-down to the current Gehry design for the Eisenhower Memorial next month. Doing so would suggest that the Commission understands that a great public memorial to a great and noble man is a kind of exclamation point, not a question mark. The Gehry design is a meaningless maze that does little or nothing to explain to the public — which is increasingly illiterate historically — the meaning of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s life and its significance in the American story. Indeed, the Gehry design reinforces that historical amnesia rather than offering a remedy for it.
Ike is remembered for his youthful prowess on the gridiron, but as his wonderful memoir, At Ease, reminds us, he was also a talented baseball player. It is now the bottom of the ninth inning for the Eisenhower Memorial. The perpetrators and proponents of the Gehry design have been throwing spitballs for years. It’s time to call them out; the National Capital Planning Commission should do so on October 5; and the president and the secretary of the Interior should then follow suit. The man who launched what he called the “Great Crusade” on June 6, 1944, deserves far better of his country than the Gehry design for his memorial.
— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. His newest book, Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II, has just been published by Basic Books.