There is a lot of criticism being leveled at Frank Gehry’s design for the Eisenhower Memorial. It’s been compared to a Nazi death camp, a missile silo, and Soviet tributes to Marx and Lenin. The biggest point of contention, though, seems to be the depiction of Eisenhower as a young man. “[T]he only representation of Eisenhower himself [is] a statue of him as a barefoot teenage boy in Abilene,” wrote Conrad Black for the National Review Online. “This is nonsense. The monument is not raised up to a farm boy, but to the Supreme Commander of the Allied armies that liberated Western Europe in 1944 and 1945 and to a two-term president of the United States.”
Black, who maintains a lively writing practice from his federal prison cell in Florida, is misinformed. As Witold Rybczynski noted in the New York Times, two giant stone reliefs show Eisenhower the general and Eisenhower the elder statesman. “In this context, the small statue will have the effect of a footnote,” Rybczynski writes. It is significantly smaller than either of the stone reliefs. Also, the statue will not depict Eisenhower barefoot, says the memorial commission that is overseeing the project, which has come out forcefully and unanimously in favor of Gehry. But to show Eisenhower barefoot would be a nice touch. Eisenhower was proud of his rise from simple roots.
I hated Gehry’s design when I first saw images of the physical model.
A fence on poles might make for an interesting sculpture at the University of California, San Diego, but it didn’t seem to be a good way to commemorate a president. Then I saw images of a full-size mock-up of the metal tapestry from last fall. The buildings surrounding the proposed memorial are some of the ugliest in D.C. The sample tapestry, which depicts tree branches, obscures the buildings in a way that is truly sublime.There are still some problems, such as the outsized, brutalist columns that Gehry is proposing to hold up the tapestry. The way the tapestries hang on one side of the giant columns is also awkward. It suggests one side is the front and one side is the back.
Another area where the memorial’s designers really came up short was the planting design—which is mostly limited to grass and very large trees. Why not use different levels of plantings to soften the space?
To raise a more general concern, I wonder why this memorial is being treated like a tombstone—a place you pass by solemnly—rather than a place of gathering. It’s not clear we need a sacred temple to Eisenhower as we have dedicated to Lincoln and Jefferson. This memorial could become a pleasant hangout where tourists and federal workers can stop for lunch. There is precedent: Pershing Park, which commemorates the great general of World War I, was designed as a lunch spot with an ice rink.