Published May 11, 2013
Senator Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) says that, if the controversy over the proposed Eisenhower Memorial in Washington isn’t quickly resolved in favor of postmodern icon Frank Gehry’s design, “we’ll see another decade go by without an Eisenhower memorial.”
To which one has to reply, with all respect: “Why is that the issue here?”
George Washington died in 1799. The Washington Monument was not finished until 1884, 85 years after the first president’s death and more than 100 years after his greatest service to the nascent republic during the American Revolution.
Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the Virginia statute on religious freedom in 1777. The Jefferson Memorial, which includes excerpts from those two great Jeffersonian contributions to our national life, was dedicated in 1943: almost a century and a quarter after Jefferson’s death in 1826 and more than a century and a half after Jefferson’s quill first recorded the words that now appear on his memorial’s interior walls.
As for what many regard as the greatest of national presidential monuments, the Lincoln Memorial, it was dedicated in 1922, 57 years after the Emancipator’s death at the hands of John Wilkes Booth.
Dwight D. Eisenhower died on March 28, 1969. Senator Roberts’s congressional colleagues and his fellow Kansans (among whom the Eisenhower Memorial Commission is trying to drum up support for the Gehry design) might well ask, “Why the rush?” Why not get the Eisenhower memorial right, even if doing so means that it wouldn’t be dedicated until after 2020 — which, in any case, is a mere 51 years after Ike’s death?
The answer to “why the rush” is no great mystery. The rush is on because awarding this important commission to Frank Gehry has virtually no support outside two groups that ought not be imagined to have infallible judgment in these matters, but who have had, to date, significant political (that is, financial) control over the Eisenhower Memorial project: the hyper-modernist and postmodernist architectural elites who have made such a hash of American civic art, on the one hand, and, on the other, those laymen they have somehow convinced that steel-mesh scrims supported by 80-foot-tall columns reminiscent of Stonehenge constitute a fitting public tribute to the supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, the founding commander of NATO, and the highly successful 34th president of the United States.
Senator Roberts has also confessed to a certain weariness over this controversy, a sentiment that is not misplaced. For the entire Eisenhower Memorial process has been deeply flawed, and thus highly contentious, from the moment Congress authorized the memorial in 1999 and created a bipartisan Eisenhower Memorial Commission composed of four members each of the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives and four presidential appointees.
The Commission’s approach to the competition that would produce a design for the Eisenhower Memorial was, to put it gently, undemocratic and opaque. The competition was open only to licensed architects with portfolios; no amateurs, students, sculptors, or other interested parties need apply; licensed architects just getting started in their careers had no chance. Moreover, the competition was one among designers, not designs — the very opposite of a blind review that judged detailed proposals on their merits. At no point in the competition was an entrant required to submit an actual proposal. The emphasis was on portfolio and reputation, which skewed the process toward elite (which is to say, postmodern) architects whose glittering reputations were created in no small part by elitist, postmodern critics.
As for opacity, the public does not know even today the identities of the vast majority of the entrants. Nor has the public seen Frank Gehry’s submission to the commission, including his statement of design philosophy, his explanation (if there was any) of his prior work’s design flaws and cost overruns, and his response to the lawsuit against him filed by MIT because of such problems. Nor has the public been told why the Eisenhower Memorial Commission sent competition invitations to 33 pre-selected architects, most of whose names remain as unknown as the reasons they received such special treatment. That Gehry was selected as the architect of the Eisenhower Memorial under these circumstances has raised reasonable suspicions that the outcome of this alleged “competition” was largely predetermined.
All of which has led to the contentiousness that Senator Roberts finds wearying: the December 2011 resignation of David Eisenhower, the former president’s grandson, from the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, on which he was the only family member serving; March 2012 congressional testimony by Susan and Anne Eisenhower expressing the family’s united opposition to the original Gehry design; a strongly worded October 2012 letter to the Eisenhower Memorial Commission from Ike’s son, John, opposing the Gehry design; a February 2013 technical report from the National Capital Planning Commission raising serious concerns about the durability, cleanliness, and safety of the steel-mesh scrims that dominate Gehry’s design; and, most recently, the March 2013 hearing by the House Subcommittee on Public Lands on a bill by chairman Rob Bishop (R., Utah) that called for a new design competition to be overseen by a reformed Eisenhower Memorial Commission, and the elimination of $100 million in funding earmarked for constructing Gehry’s design — the intent being to hold a fair, open, and transparent competition that would avoid the manifest flaws in the original process.
Thus Senator Roberts’s weariness is quite understandable. What doesn’t make sense is his conclusion: that the only way forward is to build the Eisenhower Memorial according to the Gehry design, so that it might be completed in this decade.
There is something quite striking about Frank Gehry’s design for the Eisenhower Memorial: It has achieved a rare feat of ecumenism in 21st-century American public life, in that a broad swath of opinion thinks it’s horrible. (Or, as The New Yorker, no bastion of architectural classicism, put it, “In true bipartisan spirit, nearly everyone hates it.”) Distinguished columnists such as George Will, Ross Douthat, and David Brooks have inveighed against the Gehry design, as have public intellectuals such as Bruce Cole (former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities) and Roger Scruton. Nor can the design’s supporters claim that their opposition comes exclusively from the right. Representative Jim Moran (D., Va.) and Washington Postcolumnist Richard Cohen are both opponents of Gehry’s design, and articles critical of it have appeared in The New Republic, the Baltimore Sun, and theBoston Globe.
In a recent interview, Senator Roberts made two points: that the Gehry design “fits Eisenhower’s life” and is “what he would have wanted,” and that an Eisenhower Memorial is “highly deserved.” Here, the good senator bats .500.
As to Roberts’s first assertion, it’s not self-evidently clear why Ike, whose aesthetic tastes ran to Louis L’Amour cowboy novels, would have “wanted” a memorial that has absolutely nothing to do with what men of his time understood to be appropriate public art: a design that’s far less a monument to Dwight D. Eisenhower and his enormous achievements than it’s an expression of postmodernism’s determination to level the human condition down to least common denominators expressed in art of incomprehensible abstraction. Nor is it clear why Ike, a genius at logistics, and a military commander and president who insisted on orderly process, would have “wanted” his memorial confected by a deeply flawed competition that seems to have been rigged from the start to get Frank Gehry the place his acolytes have long sought for him in monumental Washington.
Yet Senator Roberts is quite right that Eisenhower deserves a memorial in the nation’s capital. What he deserves, however, is a fitting memorial. The Gehry design is anything but that; and there is absolutely no need to fix some artificial and arbitrary point at which the Eisenhower Memorial must be completed. The Gehry design should be scrapped, once and for all, because of its inherent unsuitability, the serious questions that have been raised about its sustainability, and the untoward process that led to its adoption. The competition should be started anew, and the process of finding a more appropriate design should be genuinely open.
That might, just might, produce an Eisenhower memorial worthy of the man, and worthy of monumental Washington as it ought to be.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.