CFA Transcripts for the Eisenhower Memorial

I wrote an article on Medium dissecting the deceptive misquotations used by certain opponents of Frank Gehry’s design for the Eisenhower Memorial in order to discredit the Commission. What I particularly dislike is how they quote hard-to-find sources out of context.

So, I wanted to share a few of the key documents from the Commission of Fine Arts, sunshine being, I’m told, a good cleanser.

The Commission of Fine Arts consists of seven experts in art, design, and culture. Currently the composition is (in order of seniority) Earl Powell (art historian), Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk (architect and urban planner), Edwin Schlossberg (exhibit designer), Teresita Fernández (sculptor), Phil Freelon (architect), Alex Krieger (architect), Elizabeth Meyer (landscape architect).

Because the project has dragged on for so long, the composition of the Commission has changed significantly. In the course of the project, these people have also served on it: Pamela Nelson (artist), Diana Balmori (landscape architect), Michael McKinnell (architect), Witold Rybczynski (architecture critic),  and John Belle (preservation architect).

The Commission was created in 1910, but operates under a later law, the Shipstead-Luce act, which mandates its review of projects that would have an impact on Washington’s public spaces. Also coins. Generally speaking, they review design and have no constituencies. Unlike the NCPC, the meetings are unpredictable.

The Commission has approved the memorial concept twice, in 2011 and 2013. In 2011, a unanimous vote picked the preferred alternative. In 2013, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Phil Freelon, and Alex Krieger voted to approve the revised concept. Elizabeth Meyer dissented on the grounds that the landscape elements were insufficiently developed.

The CFA never formally asked Gehry to revise tapestry configuration. In fact Meyer criticized the public comments in February for being off-topic. The November and February reviews of the project were called specifically required to deal with the landscape elements Meyer identified. Powell, Fernández, and Schlossberg were absent.

So, here are the comments that have added so much fuel to the fire.

 February, 2014.

Teresita Fernández takes exception to the way she was quoted:

Again, for the record, since there are very liberal uses of quotes from past sessions, there is nothing wrong with theater as a premise for a design concept, at all. It is not the “what” of it. It is the “how” of it.

The criticisms that were made before with the word “theater” in them had to do with how those components were being used in relation to this idea of the theatrical which is just fine as an idea. There is nothing wrong with that.

And it had to do with the proportions of this site, the massive size of this site, in relation to the smaller proscenium-like elements and the realistic figurative elements. My references to the theater, or the theatrical aspects of the design elements, had more to do with that than with an issue about theater in general which are absolutely ridiculous.

I think that there are issues of frontality and I think they relate to what we are talking about. I am not trying to go back to something that happened three years ago that has been approved already.

It has to do with how you experience that landscape, which we are speaking about today, and how things are approached and how the experience sort of develops as visitors walk through this space and how images and elements in the background relate to images in the foreground and how natural elements like trees and the sky and the earth beneath you relate to artificial elements which are part of the design.

So I just wanted to clarify that because I think that a kind of cynicism used with people’s comments taken out of context are very dangerous and, when that is done, it requires a kind of clarification which means, you know, there is nothing
wrong with theater as a premise for a concept.

That was never criticized. What was criticized were the elements of design that were used in defense of that and that some of them seemed very unresolved.

So, with all due respect, I think that it is important that we use each other’s quotes within the context that they were used in originally and not taken out of context.

Here is what bothered her, Justin Shubow’s testimony:

Mr. Chairman, distinguished Commissioners, my name is Justin Shubow. I am here on behalf of the National Civic Art Society.

I promise this time not to quote Commissioners at length but I will quote Mr. Gehry as an expert on his own design. At your last meeting in November, this body heavily criticized the memorial in no uncertain terms. Yet, in its booklet and presentation today, the applicant has barely responded to those strong comments and, in regard to the most important criticisms, has simply ignored them altogether.

I should note that these criticisms and recommendations were explicitly stated in this Commission’s follow-up letter which perhaps [CFA Secretary] Luebke could quote. There was clear consensus at the prior meeting that the side panels must be removed because the urban room is well framed without them and also because they are “flapping in the

Mr. Krieger said that this would fail as a first-year architecture-school project and he compared those columns to chimneys from an underground power plant.

His remarks were seconded by Chairman Powell and Commissioner Freelon. And, to go back a little bit further in time, at the July meeting, Mr. Krieger expressed the same criticisms of the side panels and he was seconded by Commissioner Plater-Zyberk. And, at the subsequent meeting in November, she alluded to that context and said she stood by what she said in July. That amounts to four out of six Commissioners.

Also implicating the issue was Commissioner Fernández who criticized the entire design’s theatricality including its two-dimensionality, frontality and flatness which, I submit, are particularly evident in the stand-alone billboard-like screens.

She was correct to emphasize the theatrical concept. Mr. Gehry has repeatedly described his design in theatrical terms. He described the memorial as being a “theater for cars with the side panels serving as the proscenium.” He likewise said that the south tapestry was the backdrop for the stage set.

The concept of the memorial as a theater has been his fundamental idea from the very beginning. Indeed, it is for this reason he chose as his co-designer Robert Wilson, the stage director and set designer.

As Mr. Gehry told this Commission in 2010, “Part of our team from the beginning was Robert Wilson. I picked him because he knows how to get the essence of the character and make it happen on stage with lighting and actors.”

The following year, at an event at the National Archives, Mr. Gehry and Mr. Wilson together unveiled the current tapestry concept. Mr. Gehry praised Mr. Wilson’s contribution; “He has turned out to be ten times more than I thought I needed
and now I know I needed in developing this scene. It is, after all, as the Great Bard said, ‘all the world’s a stage.'”

They explained it was Mr. Wilson’s idea to put the Kansas landscape on the backdrop and also his idea to incorporate a statue of the barefoot boy Eisenhower, now a life-
sized teenager.

It is important to keep this concept in mind since, at the last meeting, Commissioners asked the applicant to explain the intended visitor experience. Although Mr. Gehry did not attend that meeting, this is an issue he has previously spoken to: “We were thinking of visitors driving by. This is kind of like a theater and maybe eventually you might find places to sit on the back of the Air and Space Museum which is not used at
all.” He was referring to a balcony on the fourth floor of the museum that is closed to the public.

In short, the experience is, on the one hand, a drive-by theater and, on the other hand, a sit-down theater in which the box seats are not even accessible.

Admittedly, he has also addressed the experience of pedestrian visitors, the groundlings, you might say. When then Fine Arts Commissioner Diana Balmori [this was actually Pamela Nelson in May 2010-NF] said, about the colossal columns, “You would feel like an ant next to them,” Mr. Gehry replied, “Yes. There was a whole different perception.”

Given this Commission’s consensus that the side panels must be removed, the question is why the south tapestry should remain at all. Understanding memorial design as a temple, without the side panels, there is no three-sided temple form.

Understanding the design as an urban room, since the site is effectively framed by the buildings to the east and west, as well as the Air and Space Museum across the wide boulevard of Independence Avenue, it is framed for still stronger reasons by the LBJ Building which abuts it.

The only possible justification for the south tapestry is as a theatrical backdrop, a flat steel curtain. Robert Wilson, himself, said it was like a theatrical scrim. Consider, however, that Mr. Gehry told this Commission that the LBJ Building, itself, is a kind of backdrop screen. The tapestry thus needlessly creates a backdrop in front of a backdrop and itlogically follows that if the tapestry is the backdrop, the promenade is the back stage.

Far worse, the gargantuan scrim quite literally upstages the actors in the memorial core and it does so not just in terms of mise-en-scene but in terms of both absolute size and relative scale. This titanic stage set would put Wagner to shame.

As for the scenery on the backdrop, Commissioner Fernández noted that, given the natural landscape of the earth and the heavens above, there is no need for an artificial two-dimensional rendering of the landscape and why, after all, do we need a landscape of steel trees when we have a landscape of living trees? There was a total disconnect between the architecture and the landscape architecture.

Some time, after stepping down from this Commission, Witold Rybczynski [Rybczynski does not like Shubow uses this post and voted for the design two times-NF], who reviewed this project on a number of occasions, commented that it appeared more and more likely that it was not going to get built.

He therefore suggested a simple solution; turn the square into a green open space containing nothing but a modest statue. Thus, one of your former colleagues has already foreseen and recommended a purely landscaped solution.

He was right to look for a way out. All the world might be a stage but no one likes a third act that drags on forever. We therefore respectfully request that this Commission
recognize Mr. Gehry’s design for what it is and call it “curtains!”

November 21st, 2013. 

So, what did Fernández say? It’s worth knowing what Fernández is an artist whose sculptures usually involve flat surfaces and playing with the peculiarities of human perception.

I agree with everything Alex said. I have a lot to say and I agree with the whole argument about the two end panels but I have bigger issues with the whole thing.

And, with all due respect to Mr. Gehry, I think the tapestries are actually very beautiful things and that they could be very beautiful things in another context, so I have nothing against them and I am not arguing for some more traditional direction either.

But there is a kind of an–and I kind of wanted to like this. I have wanted to like this. And I don’t. And when I went down to look at the model, it became very clear to me
why, you know. And I feel that once I understood that, I could articulate it better.

But as I looked around at this model and the ones downstairs, it seems to me that everything is working with this sort of motif, this vocabulary, of theatricality, backdrop, curtains, plinths, actors on stages, marquees. These are all very familiar. These are all very familiar–it is a very familiar visual vocabulary. And they are all devices that deal with flatness.

So, from a sculptural point of view and I hate to say this but Mr. Gehry, this is not a building. Just because you are an architect and you make something big does not make a
building. Just because you make something tall.

As someone who makes things that are large and puts them outside in the landscape, this is not a building. And it can’t be–that statement can’t be made to then defend a bunch of badly designed things that come afterwards.

But the fact that all these devices that are being used in this kind of strategy deal with flatness, from a sculptural point of view, it seems very strange and very confusing that so much open space is needed for an experience that is essentially dealing with frontality.

In the model downstairs, I found them sort of very interesting to look at but then I realized that most interesting and most robust part of–and most bold aspect of the design was the model trees that were put into the model and, if you took them out, you essentially had–it was a very weak kind of design, a very sort of timid approach or this sort of backdrop.

I think that, in general, in any monument, in any memorial anywhere in the world, that viewers need to connect and relate to the idea of a hero or a heroine in a much more
universal way and I just think that the whole reference to the prairie is very cryptic in what essentially is, regardless of how casual you want it to be or how not-designed you want it to be, it is very–it is a formal gesture.

A memorial is a formal gesture and I feel that whole reference to the prairie imagery is very cryptic, that the landscape could transport you, or that it would be enough of a
contrast to the urban landscape that is around it, I don’t think that that would happen with the elements that you have provided here.

I don’t think that that sense of being transported is evident, would be evident, in the experience of viewers.

To quote what you had projected in your presentation that the memorial would reduce the sense of scale of the urban precinct, I think this is a really, really pretentious statement.

I think that you are not just talking about a flat backdrop with a building behind it. If you look up, you have the sky. And the landscape always wins. It is a big, big, vast experience that occurs above your head and under your feet and all around you and I think it is very pretentious to assume that, by putting a curtain, basically, a backdrop that is smaller than everything that is built that is around it, that you would somehow sort of reduce the scale of the urban precinct.

I really think that that sense–that is actually, for me, from a design point of view where it doesn’t work, where you are trying to create a landscape but you are surrounded by the real landscape and it is a very difficult proposition.

I don’t think that you are going to compete with that, your landscape, and with the vastness of open sky above your head.

So I will leave it there. I am sure my colleagues could speak more about the landscape element of it but from a sort of outdoor sculptural experiential point of view, I felt
that those were the points that were of real concern to me.

Alex Krieger wasn’t present in February to defend himself, but he did not like what happened at the last meeting.

Perhaps I should remain more silent this time around. Look. First, I would like two preambles to what I am about to say. One is, you know, as a designer, I have great empathy for the fact that for years before, and probably for years ahead, you are going to be blasted with all kinds of comment, some reasonable and some not. I understand that.

Secondly, I want to make sure that my criticism has nothing to do–nothing to do nor can be used as a way to say, gee, it should be a classical-inspired memorial. My comments
have nothing to do with trying to move it towards to kind of a traditional classical aesthetic.

But, of course, I do have a comment to make about the side panels, not so much the side panels but the fact that each iteration–and you have talked about many iterations of the design–each iteration made the case of enclosure less compelling.

You know, there is a kind of traditional first-semester architectural exercise where you are given, like, three columns and four little pieces of wall and say, “define an enclosure.” This would fail. It would fail. The panels are flapping in the breeze right now.

When they were along Independence, you could say, yes, a kind of a sense of enclosure. If they could be as long as the buildings that they supposedly don’t, you know, kind of provide sufficient enclosure, maybe. They are just panels.

And, furthermore, the original concept which I thought was actually quite beautiful, each of the panels, in a sense, acts as a backdrop for a composition of the statuary. The statuary has left the side panels and is now clustered, I think appropriately, at the center. Therefore, their role as sort of backdrops for the other statuaries has also gone away.

So they don’t enclose the space. That is kind of an imaginary idea. In the meantime, yes, I would repeat my comments. I am sorry if it was kind of quoted so extensively.
Your first sense of it, of this memorial, if you approach from the other side of Independence would be of gigantic columns that have little reference to Roman temples. And, by the way, why we reference Roman temples as memorials for presidents, I am not
sure. That seemed to have ended with Jefferson.

The reference of them might be as, you know, gigantic chimneys that might be disguising an underground power plant. So I don’t understand. I actually don’t understand any further the importance of those side panels.

The original idea of enclosure seems to have left quite a while ago whereas, at the moment–by the way, I love the large tapestry, assuming it doesn’t have any technical flaws, as a fabulous background for the entire composition of the park, landscape as well as now the particular very careful display of the kind of statuary, that core of the memorial.

So, yes; I would repeat my comments. I don’t understand what the side panels have any longer to do with the design other than as a remnant of an idea that has kind of come
and gone largely as a consequence of all these other iterations.

So they are just flapping in the breeze as far as I am concerned and exposing–I am actually not concerned at all about whether this column is outward of some imaginary line or not. The fact that you would be approaching a memorial looking as this describes–this is very effective, 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 than the notion of a kind of an abstract enclosure of a space that actually seems very well enclosed as your model demonstrates.

And, by the way, one more comment and I surely will stop. Both in modern, both in classical landscapes and modern landscapes, trees often, or a landscape, are a very effective means of enclosure, actually. And that is the part of enclosure that you aren’t dealing with particularly well, as Elizabeth said especially on Independence Avenue.

And Shubow’s statement from November:

Mr. Chairman, distinguished Commissioners, my name is Justin Shubow. I am here on behalf of the National Civic Art Society. I am glad to see in attendance today Bruce Cole, President Obama’s recent appointment to the Eisenhower Commission. [Obama appoints people to the EMC on the advice of the Senate. So it’s just as much Mitch McConnell’s appointee, politics being politics-NF] 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 [This is an assumption used for cost estimation, and Shubow is quoting it in a factually incorrect way-NF].

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 art work and very structural armature will need to be replaced on a periodic basis [The Ise Shrine comes to my mind!-NF].

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 placement of the columns particularly those on the east and west tapestries.

Commissioners Krieger, Plater-Zyberk and Freelon expressed strong doubts in this area and it is imperative that 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 the scheme so they are more like buildings.”

The applicant also defends that 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 is okay 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. Commission Krieger, after eloquently describing President Eisenhower’s humility, said that first impression pedestrians will get of the memorial was not, “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 in approaching this memorial might first see the back of the column, a very large column, a very sort of unprecedented column unrelated to capitals or buildings. This is the part of the memorial that, to me, seems now the weakest.”

What triggers 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.[Shubow refers to this printout of the submission books as “my handout” in a blog post written in the third person-NF].

The first page here shows the rendering that opened Mr. Krieger’s eyes. I have 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-scaled 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. “I think some of the points Alex has raised, in fact, may be a very good suggestion because the original concept of enclosing those four acres in making the precinct has already been largely taken away. In fact, it may be becoming much stronger potentially in thinking of it as primarily a park with a backdrop.”

She also criticized the scope of the design which is so big it could fit 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 in 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 columns, 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.” [Request for consideration is non-binding-NF]

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.

Bonus: CFA Secretary Tom Luebke responding to Shubow’s indignation at limited changes.

Just to clarify the record, the action taken by the Commission was not to recommend an actual change but was to recommend the consideration of that.

Hopefully, this clears some things up.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *