Dwight Eisenhower was one of the greatest Americans of the twentieth century. As Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, he led the United States to victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. As president of the United States, he presided over a period of normalcy and peace with many accomplishments that benefited the country. A memorial is to be erected on the mall in Washington, DC, in his honor.
Frank Gehry is the architect of the proposed memorial. Gehry’s design features large metal tapestries with images of Eisenhower’s boyhood home in Abilene, Kan., and a statue of a young Eisenhower seeming to marvel at what would become of his life. It’s missing the yellow brick road as well as a few other things.
George Will criticizes the proposed memorial by beating mercilessly on his Washington Post colleague, cultural critic Philip Kennicott, for his praise of the design. No animals were hurt in the production of the column, but Kennicott is still tending to his wounds.
Former NEH Chairman Bruce Cole goes right after the design in “Proposed memorial is an insult to Eisenhower.” Cole writes a mean lead:
If the National Capital Planning Commission approves Frank Gehry’s design for a “memorial” to President Eisenhower in April, the nation will wind up with a monumental farce.
Cole is unrelenting:
To be built between the Department of Education and the National Air and Space Museum, it will occupy one of the most prestigious pieces of real estate on the Washington’s already overcrowded National Mall.
The grandiose “memorial” will encompass four acres dotted with random trees and paths bounded by 13 enormous towers, each as tall as an eight-story building. These towers will support colossal screens composed of strips of aluminum, Gehry calls them “tapestries,” but in fact they look like woven chain link fences.
But where’s Ike in all this? Never fear, a single short statue will depict him, as a barefoot country boy from Kansas.
Why? Well, as Gehry explains in his opaque postmodern jargon: “There are people that think this is too big a space for Eisenhower. He wasn’t as important as that space is. Why does he have a space that’s bigger than somebody else?
“He doesn’t. He’s gonna have a little plank, for a little boy. This is an image that’s going to contextualize and modify the location so it can accept that little frontispiece and not get lost in the hubbub of the city. I think it’s going to be very modest.”
Gehry, whose buildings often look like the wreckage of 747s or drunken skyscrapers, purposely subverts the order and stability of traditional architecture.
This is evident in his Eisenhower Memorial, a cross between an amusement park and a golf course, which thumbs its nose at the neo-classical style of the great presidential monuments to Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln and many of the other buildings that line the mall.
We have a Gehry plane crash here in Minneapolis, on the campus of the University of Minnesota, overlooking the Mississippi River. It is the Weisman Art Museum. As a museum of modern art on a university campus, the design does no damage and provides some comic relief.
Not so Gehry’s proposed Eisenhower memorial. It is an exercise in reduction and forgetting: a postmodern twist on the idea of a memorial.
As Cole notes in his column, the Eisenhower family wants to halt the memorial because of the design. The family says architect Frank Gehry’s concept overemphasizes Eisenhower’s humble Kansas roots and neglects to show his many accomplishments during World War II and his time at the White House.
Prominent among the family opponents of the proposed memorial is David Eisenhower, a grandson whose love of his grandfather is informed by a historian’s judgment. He resigned from the memorial commission to protest Gehry’s design. Cole concludes his column on this fitting note:
Gehry as a true postmodernist believes that there is little meaning in history and certainly no heroes. So instead of the feats of the commander in chief of the Allied Forces in World War II and two-term president of the United States, rising generations will see Ike, in Gehry’s words as “a little boy” lost in the maze of the architect’s ego.
That is, unless, those who still believe in heroes stop this traducing of our past.