Mixing New and Old at the Eisenhower Memorial

Yesterday, a panel selected a design concept by Frank Gehry for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial The design is promising.

The large blocks form a circle, enclosing a single tree and a small pool of water. On the faces of the ring of stones, images cast in low relief and quotations in large type speak history to those inside. East and west of the central courtyard, groves of trees canopy informal plazas. At first blush, these spaces feel intimate and beautiful. Rising from just beyond the trees, large stainless steel screens supported by limestone columns enclose the space on the north and south sides. The screens will contain some of the sculptural program through a woven scrim that hides the forgettable Department of Education Building to the south. The street condition is undefined, bounded by the scrims except at three prominent areas.

The axis of Maryland Avenue cuts through the memorial, with the stone ring in the center. Building the memorial without disrupting the viewshed of the Capitol or traffic flow were seen as the two big problems. The Memorial Commission selected a design by Gehry that sidesteps the issue of sightlines, by removing one of eight columns and two sections of the screens. This way, the design frames the primary view of the Capitol with the same structures that fit it into the grid. In terms of the vehicular route, the panel rejected a vehicular road through the monument and instead created a pedestrian plaza. The site was located to move the monumental program off of the Mall. Drawing visitors, most of whom tour on foot, was equally important.

Gehry has tamed his own style is tamed for this project, although the ring of stones exemplifies the blockish forms he had been experimenting with since the opening of Walt Disney Hall. Mercifully, Gehry has also eschewed the dismal expressionism of a younger generation of memorial designers. The design team did not try to assign tremendous meaning to every little detail. Instead, it is a building that can be judged for its power and for its beauty, although people will disagree.

Last year, the Post’s architecture critic Philip Kennicott called for new languages of memorialization. Gehry sort of delivers, but the project also contains overt references to the neoclassical precedents around DC. The memorial succeeds because of them, even as it inverts some and adds a few new details. The large screens are the most novel idea of the entire memorial. They expand the sculptural program to a gigantic scale, reaching eighty feet into the air. During the daytime, the might shade the interior space. At night the model shows them lit from the courtyard, more clearly revealing the content to Independence Avenue. Gehry revisits some older ideas as well. Although the Mall hasn’t seen memorial trees in a century, they once formed a good part of the commemorative landscape and this monument contains one as the centerpiece of the ring of rectangular monoliths.

On the faces of each block, reliefs will relate significant moments of in the career of the soldier and president. Relief sculpture has been less popular as part of DC’s monumental landscape. In no other memorial is it the primary form of representation. The models show large images extending to the edges of each block, almost like a digital photograph or television image. We do not want to be trapped by our technology, but the gesture toward on-screen representation does seem fresh. However, fifteen years later, the once-exotic etchings on the Korean War Veterans Memorial feel thin and inexpressive. Now, the media are moving into 3-D for its effect, so this design follows the trend back into tradition.

If the sculptural style looks promising, the columns that support the screens already disappoint. In the model, they appear too much like the dowels used to represent the shafts, and not enough like real pieces of architecture. They are mute and unattractive. Compare them to the colonnade on the Lincoln Memorial, where Henry Bacon emphasized permanence and with the beauty and connotations of the Doric order. At the Eisenhower Memorial, little can be said about the columns because the columns say so little. Gehry may not have made a grand colonnade, but he did design a great rotunda.

The ensemble at the heart of the memorial evokes a humble country life – Mayberry, even. Eisenhower was never a fortunate son; rural life bookended his life and formed his character. Born in Abiline, Kansas, and retiring to a farm in Gettysburg, the great deeds and great words that surround the bucolic centerpiece suggest a practical man thrust into history. This particular relationship is the most powerful image presented by the monument. On another level, planting a landscape at the center of a circular memorial references Jefferson. Even as monuments crumble, the ensemble seems to suggest, the self-sustaining farm life continues Eisenhower’s legacy.

The other images will come later, so we do not yet know the style or the artist, or even the content. How these artworks will convey complex achievements like the occupation of Europe or interstate highway system remains uncertain. The Civil Rights Movement, which grew more powerful and accomplished key victories had relatively little to to with Ike. Again, the metaphor of simplicity surrounded by greatness will guide visitors to examine what made the man rather than what the man made.

Before the collectible shovels even hit the ground, this design will come under review by the Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission. More importantly, translating the model-driven architecture of Frank Gehry into physical designs will require substantial thought. For example, how to humanize those columns. The sculptural program will be contentious as well. Recognizing a man who was a baseball coach, an officer, a college president, General Of the Armies, and President of the United States will be challenging. Gehry and the many agencies that oversee the mall must cooperate to produce the most affecting and communicative architecture possible.

The memorial is trying to be taken seriously. Gehry has said that his own military experience in 1955-1957 motivated him to work on this particular project – and that he holds particular respect for the man who was Commander-in-Chief during that time. Some people will never like Frank Gehry. His cavalier style can feel like an insult to hard work. Although this is just a cultivated image, this memorial must transcend his style to be recognized as a monument to Eisenhower. Based on what was displayed yesterday, with a little hard work, the monument could be one of Washington’s best.

Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington

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