Feature:Opinion

Frank Gehry’s ‘Eisen Curtain’ must not descend upon the National Mall

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Justin Shubow
Chairman, National Civic Art Society
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      Justin Shubow

      Justin Shubow is chairman and president of the National Civic Art Society, which promotes and defends the humanistic tradition in architecture, urban design, and the fine arts.

The Eisenhower family, the National Capital Planning Commission, and more and more members of the public are speaking out against Frank Gehry’s design for the official national memorial to President Eisenhower, as The Washington Post reported on Friday. If such critics are heeded, the District of Columbia will avoid making yet another monumental mistake.

Susan Eisenhower, Ike’s granddaughter, released the following public statement on her family’s behalf. She emphasized that all members of the family agreed with it, which implicitly includes her brother David, who is the family’s representative on the Eisenhower Memorial Commission:

“The Eisenhower family is deeply honored that an Eisenhower Memorial is being planned … Family members, however, are concerned about the concept for the memorial, as well as the scope and scale of it [emphasis added]. We feel that now is the time to get these elements right — before any final design approvals are given and before any ground is broken.”

Arguably the world’s most famous architect, Gehry is best known for designing such instant tourist attractions as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. There is no doubt that he has successfully created revenue-generating spectacles, so exhibitionist and histrionic that one is tempted to call them “Gehry-atrical.” Like a graphic designer working in three dimensions, he creates flashy logos for institutions and cities, though the brand is always his own.

Deconstructionist in style, Gehry’s trademark works are composed of irrational, irregular, nameless shapes. More sculptures than buildings, they are all twisted surface, exploded topology lessons with few hints to their interiors.

They express his self-stated philosophy: “Life is chaotic, dangerous, and surprising. Buildings should reflect that.”

With great consistency, Gehry even built a Center for Brain Health that appears to have been designed by an Alzheimer’s patient.

While architectural modernists are totalitarians, pressing on us their image of rational-bureaucratic utopia, Gehry is an anarchist, a ludic nihilist. Based out of L.A., he is the architect of license, of liquidity and impermanence.

In short, whatever his merits otherwise, he was precisely the wrong choice to design a memorial to Eisenhower.

The pairing of Ike with Gehry is a contrast of gray flannel with lamé, of sobriety with intoxication, of the Midwest with Southern California. Modest in demeanor and style, Eisenhower even hated the outlandish chrome detailing on post-war American cars.

It’s as if Norman Rockwell had been asked to paint a portrait of Lady Gaga, the plastic pop icon for whom Gehry designed a shapeless hat two years ago. (A tabloid could have headlined it “Gehry Goes Dada for Gaga.”)

But it is not just an incongruity of taste. The ideals Eisenhower represented as both president and supreme Allied commander are foreign if not anathema to Gehry: order, security, self-restraint.

For over 200 years, Washington, D.C. has been defined by its stately boulevards, radial street arrangement, building height restriction, and grand vistas. Its iconic buildings and monuments are all classical in style.

Civility demands that the Eisenhower Memorial respect that context. But Gehry’s natural inclination is to clash, to interrupt a symphony with a noisemaker.

Now he is to be given 100 million in taxpayers’ dollars and a sprawling four-acre space adjacent to the National Mall, just south of the Air and Space Museum.