Last week, a federal planning commission that oversees monuments in Washington, D.C., voted to reject Frank Gehry’s design for the Eisenhower Memorial. What can we learn from this?
The design was selected in a 2009 competition, and has faced a near-constant barrage of criticism since then. With 80-foot columns and stainless steel tapestries featuring imagery from President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Kansas childhood, the design has been derided as out-of-scale with its surroundings. That’s among the more polite criticisms.
The Gehry memorial plan has garnered outspoken criticism from Eisenhower’s descendants, who have been kicking up a public fuss about it for years. Susan Eisenhower, the president’s granddaughter and spokesperson for the family’s wishes on the issue, testified before a Congressional subcommittee in 2012, drawing parallels between Gehry’s metal tapestries and fences in Nazi concentration camps, the Iron Curtain, and Communist propaganda. Is there any harsher design criticism than “it looks like a Nazi death camp?”
The metal tapestries are the most contested aspect of the design. They’re too big! They not bi-partisan! The underlying message is clear: No one wants their view of the capital obscured by giant pictures of a flyover state.
The Eisenhower family (and critics) also objected to a proposed statue of the president as a boy, saying the image didn’t properly honor his adult accomplishments. To be fair, the boy-Eisenhower statue may not have fully communicated his status as a five-star general who oversaw landmark civil rights legislation, the creation of the Interstate Highway System, and the truce in the Korean War. The statue was redesigned to represent the 34th president as a teenager, instead, because everyone wants to be remembered at that age.