As an educational nonprofit dedicated to the classical and humanistic tradition in public art and architecture, the National Civic Art Society (which I direct) believes that our most important monuments play an essential role in defining our national identity and crystallizing our historical memory. Civic art and architecture are the mirror in which the civilization sees itself.
In 1999 Congress authorized the creation of a national Memorial to President Dwight D. Eisenhower and created the Eisenhower Memorial Commission to plan and build it. In 2009, after a closed “competition” that some believe was rigged, the commission selected Frank Gehry, arguably the world’s most famous and fashionable architect, to design the Memorial. His grandiose, deconstructionist proposal—now estimated to cost a staggering $142 million—would fill a four-acre square just south of the Air and Space Museum. His plan is so big it would fit two Lincoln Memorials.
One year ago it was conventional wisdom that the design was a done deal, a fait accompli soon to be cemented with quite real facts on the ground. But what has been groundbreaking is the surge of attention from Congress and the public, and the ensuing barrage of opposition. Even an article in the New Yorker, that indicator of sophisticated opinion, last month called for “rebooting” the Memorial and explained, “in true bipartisan spirit, almost everyone hates it.”
How did we get to this turning point? The bipartisan Eisenhower Commission—comprising four senators, four House members, and four presidential appointees—does not contain a single connoisseur of art and architecture. (By contrast, the commission overseeing the Jefferson Memorial included architect Fiske Kimball, a renowned scholar of American and Jeffersonian architecture.) This lack of expertise left the Eisenhower Commission vulnerable to the influence of architectural high priests and mandarins who have an agenda antithetical to the taste and values of the American people.
The commission made a fateful error by choosing to use the General Service Administration’s Design Excellence Program for the competition. That program was created to select architects for federal office buildings and courthouses, not memorials. The very creator of Design Excellence, former GSA chief architect Edward Feiner, strongly urged the commission not to use the program.
The decision to use Design Excellence represents an utter reversal of our tradition of competitions for national monuments and memorials. Whereas formerly we held competitions of designs, the commission ran a competition of designers. At no point in the competition was an entrant required to submit an actual proposal for the memorial. Instead the emphasis was on the entrants’ previous works and reputations—all factors that favor the architectural elite.
But one does not need to be an established architect to come up with a brilliant design for a memorial. One can be a student, a sculptor, an amateur. The winner of the 1902 open competition for the (superb but overlooked) Ulysses S. Grant Memorial was Henry M. Shrady, a self-taught unknown who went on to become one of the leading sculptors of his time. Likewise, when Maya Lin won the open, blindly reviewed competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, she was a mere college student. A present-day Shrady or Lin could not even have entered the Eisenhower competition.
Not only was the competition limited to architects with substantial portfolios, it was a closed competition that garnered a mere 44 entries. This is hundreds fewer than the numbers of entries in open competitions for previous national memorials. The process was also secretive. To this day we do not know the identities of all the entrants; we have never seen what Gehry submitted; and we do not know who sat on the evaluation boards. However, so far we have been able to determine that the process violated GSA’s own acquisition rules. For instance, the evaluation board was stacked to give the client more weight than usual, which would have helped the commission achieve a pre-arranged outcome.
At the very first meeting of the commission, all the way back in 2001, its chairman Rocco C. Siciliano said it should choose someone like Frank Gehry. And lo and behold, eight years later Gehry won the “competition.” This is the same Gehry who has repeatedly said he does not like entering competitions since he does not like losing. Also note that Siciliano, who serves with Gehry as a trustee of the architect’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, had hired or worked with Gehry on three prior occasions. Informed of such red flags, Representative Darrell Issa, in his capacity as Chairman of the House Oversight Committee, has been investigating the propriety of the competition.
The former chief architect of GSA is not the only distinguished opponent of the selection process. Another is Paul Spreiregen, who is perhaps the leading expert on design competitions and author of a book on the subject. Spreiregen served as an adviser for design competitions in Washington, D.C., including the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the World Bank Headquarters. He wrote in the Washington Post:
Why weren’t all American designers given the opportunity to submit proposals for the Eisenhower memorial? The method for doing that is a very well-organized and well-managed open-design competition. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Pentagon 9/11 Memorial, the 9/11 Memorial in New York City and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis are ample evidence of the reliability of open-design competitions. The design process for the Eisenhower memorial should have been open to all. It still can be, if the Gehry design is rejected.
In the 1990s, when the commission overseeing the National World War II Memorial competition held a closed competition nearly identical to the one for the Eisenhower Memorial, there was widespread public outcry and the original competition was scrapped in favor of an open one. The Eisenhower competition has ended up in exactly the same situation. Failing to understand the past, the Eisenhower Commission was condemned to repeat it.
The result of the poorly run, undemocratic Eisenhower Memorial competition was the bizarre choice of Frank Gehry, an architect known for his subversive deconstructionist style, project-cost overruns, and prior design flaws. Putting aside aesthetics, his poor performance record alone ought to have weighed against him, according to GSA’s own standards. In the 1990s, before the Design Excellence Program went into effect, Gehry said, “My name was put up for a courthouse, and the General Services Administration . . . just laughed at the idea.” On another occasion he said, “The American government won’t even hire me to do anything. In fact we submit for courthouses every once in a while, and we get funny letters back, and people on the selection committee, the GSA guys, just guffaw to think of someone like me doing the project.”
Gehry has well summarized his deconstructionist philosophy:
Life is chaotic, dangerous, and surprising. Buildings should reflect that.
I try to rid myself and the other members of the firm of the burden of the culture and look for new ways to approach the work. I want to be open-ended. There are no rules, no right or wrong. I’m confused as to what’s ugly and what’s pretty. [emphasis added]
To be clear, this relativist, if not nihilist, philosophy constitutes a positive feature in the Design Excellence Program, which is explicitly intended to favor “innovation” and “creativity”—buzzwords meaning avant-garde and radical architecture—and to disfavor tradition, the classical American style, and anything “too rooted in the past.”
As one might expect, the style, materials, content, and scale of Gehry’s proposal are totally antithetical to and discordant with the National Mall and the Monumental Core. Indeed, Gehry has repeatedly stated his rejection of harmony as a principle of architecture and urban planning. The largest element of the Memorial’s ugly design is a gargantuan “tapestry” of industrial steel cables. The screen is larger than the iconic Hollywood sign in Los Angeles. Viewed close up, the twisted steel resembles Medusa’s serpentine head. We fear that the tapestry would come to be called the “iron curtain.”
The main tapestry and two secondary ones nearby are supported by ten enormous pillars (so-called “columns”) 80 feet tall and 11 to 12 feet in diameter. They are bare cylinders without any capitals or decoration. Conjuring visions of an incomplete highway overpass or Soviet missile silos, the oppressive pillars would make visitors feel like ants.
Criticism of the memorial has come from architects, pundits, and critics of all political and architectural orientations. Opponents include the entire Eisenhower family, George Will, George Weigel, Roger Scruton, David Brooks, John Fund, David Frum, Stephen M. Walt, Ross Douthat, Pulitzer Prize-winner David Shribman, and former National Endowment for the Humanities Director Bruce Cole.
Newspapers that have come out against the design include the New York Post, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Washington Examiner, and the Kearney Hub (of Nebraska). Articles in opposition have appeared in The New Republic, the Wichita Eagle, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Boston Globe, and Human Events. (A 190-page compilation of articles critical of the Memorial can be found at our website, www.civicart.org.)
As if this criticism were not enough, the durability of Gehry’s experimental structure—a cable wire mesh suspended in tension—has been called into question by the government’s own materials experts. The Department of the Army’s expert, for instance, recommended that an identical set of duplicate tapestries be built to serve as enormous spare parts when the tapestry becomes degraded or damaged. This would be so costly as to be unfeasible.
In short, the memorial design and process have been wrong in their aesthetics, wrong in their economics, and wrong in their physics. And perhaps Rep. Issa will find that the competition was wrong in its ethics.
Since Gehry and the Eisenhower Commission show zero willingness to back down, Congress has no choice but to go back to the drawing board and pass a bill to ensure that President Eisenhower gets the memorial he deserves. We must keep in mind that the client here is not GSA, not Gehry, not the commission. It is Congress, and ultimately the American people. Nothing could be more democratic than an open competition that provides opportunity for comment from both political leaders and the public. At the same time, it is essential that there be guidance from refined judges of taste and learned experts of the caliber of Fiske Kimball.
Regrettably, the legislation must make explicit what used to be assumed without question. Consider the bill that created the national memorial commemorating the passengers and crew killed on United Airlines Flight 93 on September 11, 2001. Congress explicitly stated, “For the purposes of this Act, the terrorists . . . shall not be considered passengers or crew of that flight.” That Congress felt the need to insert this language shows that something has gone terribly awry among the artistic and architectural elite.
What then are the universal requirements of a monument? Monuments are civic art that cause us solemnly to reflect on who we are and what we value. They are heroic in scale, timeless, and possess dignity, even grandeur. They present an ideal to which we aspire rather than warts-and-all reality. Sacred and transcendent, they inspire instead of demoralizing us. They must honor, not merely remember, their subjects. They must be made of noble materials—such as marble and bronze—that have proven their durability over millennia, not industrial materials such as steel and concrete.
Monuments are permanent and must appear permanent, unlike a scrim or a shroud. Monuments ought to be clear and unequivocal in their meaning: They should evince a few simple ideas in a way accessible to ordinary Americans. They must be legible without a guide or key, and certainly without a visitor center or iPad.
Monuments speak to us even without signage. You can be inspired by a monument even if you do not know who is represented or what that person did. Monuments are not museums and they should not try to tell stories. They are not inkblots that leave things to the interpretation of the visitor. Monuments are statements, not question marks.
In addition to satisfying all of these requirements, the Eisenhower Memorial must continue our founders’ classical vision for the nation’s capital as embodied in the L’Enfant and McMillan Plans and the design of our core buildings of government, as well as the best of our tradition of presidential memorials. There is no better way to honor Eisenhower the general, the president, and the man than in the unmistakably American idiom that we love and cherish.
A traditional man of old-fashioned virtue, President Eisenhower disdained Modern art and architecture, which he did not believe represented the taste and values of the American people. He warned in 1962, “We see our very art forms so changed that we seem to have forgotten the works of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. . . . What has happened to our concept of beauty and decency and morality?”
America can and will build Eisenhower a monument that will prove his fears unfounded. The talent is there. Now is the time to find it.
Justin Shubow is president of the National Civic Art Society.