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

Justin Shubow Chairman, National Civic Art Society
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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.

At a public talk at the National Archives last Wednesday (transcribed here), Gehry and collaborator Robert Wilson, the avant-garde theater director, unveiled their latest design for the memorial. It did little to assuage those who worried that Gehry could never accomplish what he has never done before — namely, create a work that fits into its context and is not fundamentally about himself.

The major design element in the Eisenhower Memorial remains an enormous woven stainless-steel “tapestry” — really, a scrim, as Wilson theatrically called it — that extends nearly the entire 540-foot length of the Department of Education building.

To get a sense of its size, the billboard will dwarf the Hollywood sign. The main “tapestry” is to be accompanied by two basketball-court-sized hangings located at a right angle to its corners. None of the screens represent Eisenhower in any form. Instead, they depict barren leafless trees in near-photographic detail — a landscape of permanent winter and, some might say, of death. Spindly and metallic, they deserve to be the backdrop for an outdoor showing of the Midwestern horror flick “Children of the Corn.”

To call the gargantuan screen a “tapestry” brings to mind the official East German name for the Berlin Wall: “The Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart.” Gehry’s barrier might as well be anointed the “Eisen Curtain.” Eisen, after all, means “iron” in German.

Most assuredly, birds will flock to and “review” the rude drapes as they do statues. Their droppings (rich in uric acid), along with corrosive rain, will show just how stainless the steel is.

To students of Gehry’s work, these screens harken back to the 300-foot-long chain-link fence he placed in front of the entire side of a shopping mall parking garage in 1979. Since demolished, the fence spelled out “Santa Monica Place” in bold italics almost as large as the Tinseltown sign.

The memorial’s “tapestries” are to be mounted on oppressively-sized unadorned stone cylinders 12-feet wide by 80-feet tall. Whether Gehry is trying to evoke a colonnade, Kansan grain silos, or hardened ICBM launch tubes (compare the 60-feet-tall Minuteman III missile in the military-industrial complex across the street), the effect is of titanic bollards that could prevent a battleship from crashing into the plaza.

It is unfair, however, to place too much of the blame on Gehry, who is doing his best within his limitations. The real question is why he was chosen for the project at all.

Overseen by the General Services Administration working with the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, the official design “competition” appears to have been rigged from the start. The Commission’s original project description — which focused on the memorial’s architect, not its subject — seems to have been written with Gehry in mind. It called for “a new vision of memorialization: a new paradigm for memorials.” In other words, only Geniuses need apply.

Is it conceivable that an architect as famous and proud as Gehry would enter such a competition without being sure he would win?

And is it a coincidence that the chairman of the Commission, Rocco Siciliano, was one of the main fundraisers for Gehry’s Los Angeles concert hall?

It is no wonder that the Eisenhower family, having seen the designs, are calling for a timeout on the memorial. In the spring, Susan Eisenhower even attended and spoke at the award ceremony of the National Civic Art Society’s counter-competition, which solicited designs for a more traditional memorial to Eisenhower.

The American people, not to mention members of Congress, need to understand what is at stake and to speak up. Gehry’s design is a folly, not a fait accompli.

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