A video-game Eisenhower Memorial?

Justin Shubow Chairman, National Civic Art Society
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Despite the attention paid to the increasingly endangered plan for the national Eisenhower Memorial — the Eisenhower family opposes it; the House has voted to withhold all 2013 funding for the $142 million boondoggle; Rep. Darrell Issa is investigating whether the competition was rigged — one troubling aspect has been largely ignored. This is the design’s so-called “E-Memorial” component.

According to the Eisenhower Memorial Commission:

“A downloadable mobile device application will enable visitors to view historical footage, speeches, and events in the context of the physical memorial through augmented reality. … Through dramatic storytelling, nuanced interactivity, ties to contemporary figures, and social learning experiences, the E-Memorial will not only teach visitors of Eisenhower’s legacy, but also engage and enthrall audiences.”

Note the hollow buzzwords — “nuanced interactivity,” “social learning experiences” — straight out of the edutainment industry. All of this at an additional cost of $2 million.

There can be no doubt that the E-Memorial will undermine the dignity of the physical memorial and whatever solemnity it may possess. Instead of a simple idea, it will present a complex “dramatic” narrative and an overwhelming flood of information. It will cause the memorial site to be a place of excitement rather than reflection, of trivia not wisdom.

The original competition for the memorial called for a “21st-century memorial” with a “very significant electronic component”; the commission was clearly searching for a whiz-bang product of imagineers. The winner of the competition was celebrity architect Frank Gehry, whose work is indeed often cartoonish; he even designed (since destroyed) parts of Euro Disney. Explaining the choice of Gehry, the chairman of the commission said, “We were looking for creativity and looking for ingenuity. We wanted a firm that knows how to bring in the public, with an emphasis on young people.” Thus, the commission intends the memorial to be a tourist attraction, an entertaining theme park.

The few images released so far of the E-Memorial depict visitors observing the physical memorial through their iPhones and other electronic äppärät. On their screens appears the aforementioned “augmented reality,” including images of soldiers during D-Day superimposed on the memorial landscape. No doubt the kids will find those battle scenes super cool — Hey, point your smartphone here, point it there! It will be the first video-game memorial. Like an e-ticket attraction, it will “engage and enthrall” even the most bored children (and adults).

The Memorial Commission has repeatedly emphasized that its primary aim is to appeal to children. Its executive architect, Daniel J. Feil, said, “We are focusing primarily on K through 12. We want information to go to those folks. … [W]hen the kids come there, if they have got a question … they don’t have to go to a computer screen to remember it and go — right there.” Note the focus on information and trivia.

He explicitly compared the memorial to a museum: “Basically, you get your own audio guide [as] if you were in a museum.” And according to the Eisenhower Commission, “The overall effect [of the memorial] would be designed for maximum impact on future generations of children.” Gehry himself said, “families can go sit in the park and enjoy it and not be overwhelmed by a lot of stuff, and they can plug in their — or go on their iPad and iPhone and hear the story, [Eisenhower] speaking and whatever.”

This helps explain why Gehry originally intended the sole statue of Eisenhower to be a life-size barefoot boy seated on a plank. Kids would have been able to clamber on Ike as Tom Sawyer — the perfect photo op, Gehry said. Caving to public pressure, Gehry has since removed the young boy, but plans on replacing it with Eisenhower as an unrecognizable “young man.”

The Electronic Memorial signifies a radical shift in the tradition of memorialization: from the formal to the casual, from the sacred to the profane, from stone to screen. It will be the first “plug-and-play” presidential memorial. The distracting sight and sounds of visitors listening to and watching videos of Eisenhower on their electronic gizmos is not something associated with the tradition of memorials as places for quiet, undisturbed, unmediated reflection. These devices are certainly not appropriate in other sacred and set-apart settings, such as cemeteries and places of religious worship. The memorial will effectively have a sign posted: Please disturb.

These electronic äppärät are also isolating and contrary to the experience of the memorial as a communal gathering place, a site of national unity. The devices will insure that visitors are alone together. And once those electronic devices are in hand, visitors will no doubt use them for purposes having nothing to do with the memorial: texting, verbaling, gaming.

In Frank Capra’s 1939 film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” there is a famous scene in which Jimmy Stewart’s character is overawed by the stillness and grandeur of the Lincoln Memorial. That memorial has no electronic component, the very presence of which would ruin the solemnity. Audio-animatronic presidents might suit an amusement park, but they make a mockery of a national memorial.

The good news is that there is precedent for stopping such a multisensory mistake. In the 1960s, the selected design for the national memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt contained at its core a giant black granite cube that was to play recordings of the president’s speeches. Critics called it a “transistorized FDR” and the design was scrapped.

Our leaders ought to be emboldened by that example. They must delete this siliconized, trivialized Eisenhower — a first step in zapping the whole design.

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.

Justin Shubow