Gehry, Ike, and the Language of Memory

proposal for Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial by Frank Gehry

The construction of memorials is a tricky business that has only become more complicated in the last decades, especially in Washington.  Desires for inclusiveness of design and transparency of process, set within the quagmire of federal systems and on the always-contested landscape of the capital, ensures that the process, from inception to completion, will be a long, winding, difficult path.  All of those challenges make it harder, but even more important, that we get it right, especially when we consider what is at stake.  Memorials are, after all, the built manifestation of collective memory; that is their point, and it always has been.  Cultures around the world and through all epochs have left reminders of what was important, both to remind themselves and communicate to future generations.  These messages are carried through art and/or architecture, a means that is mutually understood by artist and audience, ideally in a manner (style, if you like) that is, even without the content, inspiring.

Frank Gehry’s design for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial falls short both in content and manner–in part because the two are so at odds with each other.  Gehry’s design, which has undergone at least one major revision, spreads a collection of objects across a rectangular four-acre urban park.  Rows of round piers line three of its sides and support metal screens that bear two-dimensional images of his childhood in Kansas.  At the center of the site, an empty space is flanked by skewed planes defined by thick stone slabs with inscriptions and stacked at angles.  Figural sculptures, representing his adult achievements, will stand in front of them.

now THAT’S a colonnade

In that description, we’ve tried to be as accurate as possible given the modernist language of Gehry’s design.  The traditional components articulate something, but the architectural elements do not say much, do they?  Piers, screens, planes.  They have a relationship to neither their immediate context on the National Mall nor any meaningful tradition of memorial design.  The problem with abstraction (well, one of its problems) is that it cannot fulfill the need for significance that people seek in architecture–that was and is the point of Modernism, after all, to break from the past, which makes it antithetical to the memorial function of remembering.  This is especially significant in a project that has as its primary function the communication of an idea.  With a little imagination (which most people have, even non-architect people, which architects sometimes forget), people will surmise their own meaning within the abstract forms, and this can lead to a world of problems.  Detractors have already latched onto Gehry’s metal screens as being evocative of concentration camp chain link fences (architects might be reminded instead of Gehry’s infamous debut with the material).  Other people understand this element to be symbolic of another metallic “cloth:” the Iron Curtain–probably not a desirable image in a memorial to a significant World War II figure.  Others still might be chilled by the formal similarity of the blocky elements to this earlier monument.  The tall–VERY tall (80′ high)–cylindrical piers have been denigrated as looking like missile silos but also described as “columns” in an effort to make them seem more at home among the tradition of Classical memorials all over the Mall.  (Perhaps the same motivation lead some supporters to refer to the metal screens, ridiculously, as “tapestries.”)  That is silly, since they more closely resemble upended culvert pipes than true columns (if you need a refresher, see Henry Bacon’s work above).  Even more absurd is the suggestion that Gehry’s design is a roofless classical temple, a notion that only illustrates how hollow are the arguments that Gehry’s architecture is at home in the Classical city.

These various attempts to stretch language into impossible meanings is distracting and unhelpful, but it also points to part of the trouble with this design.  Even its supporters scramble for language to describe what it is, which is an essential part of explaining what it is supposed to do.  And it reveals a key problem with this design, which is its desire to do two things.  On the one hand, it is a big expensive project by a name-brand architect who is famous for making up his own aesthetic (which, we think, he should absolutely be free to do when he serves his private clients).  On the other, it’s trying desperately to fit into two contexts that are famously consistent in their language: the federal capital, and the tradition of memorial design.  Gehry’s proposal can’t do either.

Union Station (Burnham, 1907)

Both Washington and its Classicism are flexible systems, but they have their limits.  For well over two centuries architects have been working in that particular language of architecture, exercising its consistency and legibility, but also its flexibility.  It’s the langauge of Thornton’s capitol and Walter’s dome, Cret’s library and Pope’s museum, countless other public edifices and private homes, not to mention all those memorials, the most famous (and beloved) of which are truly Classical.

Grant Memorial (Shrady & Casey, from 1902)

Because of those immediate physical (National Mall) and functional (memorial) contexts, designing memorials in a Classical vein is arguably the right thing to do, and thus the popularity of those that have followed this vast precedent–perhaps most recently and most successfully, the National World War II Memorial (in spite of criticism from the professional architectural community).  Here we are not just thinking about the architectural forms that make up a memorial.  Rather, we are considering the Classical manner of memorial-making, traditionally either a building to go into (Jefferson, Lincoln) or an object to look at and walk around (Washington, Grant).  One of the problems with contemporary memorials seems to be the foregone conclusion that a they must be big, and the unfortunate assumption (usually) that they cannot be traditional plazas, and with that, the preference for walk-through sculpture-garden-events (like the semi-successful memorial for the Korean War).  While enlarging the scale and budget of a project, these big landscapes do not inherently make the memorial more effective.  The Eisenhower Committee (and the countless other committees that will doubtless follow their lead) might learn something by considering the strength and impact of the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial.  Its three sculptural groups are positioned on piers and define a fine and simple open room.  They effectively communicate the character of fortitude and calm for which Grant was famous especially in the midst of battle, as portrayed in the evocative flanking groups of Cavalry Charge and Artillery on either side of the central equestrian figure.  The sculpture groups communicate their subject brilliantly, without any screens, scrims, pediments or colonnades.  The team of sculptor and architect understood how to utilize their site and the surrounding monuments to enhance their memorial, while their work contributed appropriately to its setting.  Eisenhower might, likewise, be better served by this traditional approach.

As much as we believe that function, meaning, symbolism, and appropriateness are best served with a Classical design, we’re willing cede that it’s not always the only and best thing to do.  Two cases-in-point come to mind.  The Astronaut Memorial at the Kennedy Space Center (1991) effectively melded a high-tech image into a somber monument that was meant to constantly scan the heavens (its mechanical failure is both regrettable and embarrassing); it told a story and fits is place.  Closer to home, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1981) was not the first project that raised the issue of memorial langauge to the status of public debate, but it did so prominently and recently.  Without rehashing the complexities of arguments about that design, suffice it say, the image of a semi-subterranean, black angle with no recognizable imagery was shocking.  But in its muteness it accepts and maybe encourages different points of view, which is appropriate for that difficult war and its aftermath.  One of the problems of its legacy is that it suggests that the mute-modern approach is generally acceptable for memorials, rather than understanding its qualities in this specific social and political context.

national treasure, indeed!

Eisenhower is a different case altogether.  A two-term president, five-star general, and Allied commander in Europe during World War II are the hallmarks of a heroic figure who ought to be treated as such.  That is where Gehry’s language falls short on several counts.  Although it is not traditional, it is also not the identity-free architecture designed by an unknown architecture student in a competition for the Vietnam War.  It is a monument designed by one of the world’s best-known architects, and we bet you dollars to donuts that people visiting Washington in ten years will ask for directions to “the Gehry monument” rather than “the Ike memorial.”  Gehry is a name-brand architect; that is why he is sought after by clients around the world who want a wow-and-now image.  Selecting Gehry to design a building is like putting Nicolas Cage in your movie.  If you cast him, they will come.  The work of memorial designers, not the designers themselves, should attract attention and visitors; the designers should be invisible–possibly be made famous by a great design (or not, as was the case with unfortunate Shrady), or if already famous, practice in such a way that their ego is subsumed by the project (only Classical architecture geeks who visit Mr. Jefferson’s memorial are distracted by its Popeness), not chosen for already being famous and potentially outshining their subject.

Fred & Ginger (1996)

That is another reason why the Classical language is appropriate to memorial design: we read it as a style, generally; specialists can recognize differences across the decades and between practitioners, but that distinction does not matter in a style that is timeless, and is thus appropriate to communicate timeless values, like heroism.  Gehry’s work is the opposite of that–it is about the spectacle of the moment–, and it should be left alone to do so.  His highly sculptural buildings gain meaning (again, by people who seek for buildings to speak to them) only from other people; he does not engender them with anything.  Other people saw a dancing couple in his skyscraper in Prague (left); after proposing his design for a Guggenheim museum for  Abu Dhabi he spied a consonance between his work and the “domes and things . . . blocky shapes” of Ottoman mosques.  Gehry’s work doesn’t communicate anything more transcendent than the materials available to him at this moment in time; they will age and date and be eventually worn out.  The framework of this memorial will always evoke its decade, distracting from the figural elements that will continue to communicate, albeit in a setting that is hardly supportive of their mission.  Gehry’s idiom is not amenable to the figural additions that are tacked on like afterthoughts; they are post-it notes on a marker board.

In an attempt, perhaps, to put a lid on the controversy, as poobahs like to do, the commission’s “executive architect,” Daniel Feil (awarded a 2012 Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture by the AIA–emphasis on the AIA rather than the Jefferson, to be sure), issued this meant-to-be-definitive statement:

Different people like different things.  But this is a design [Gehry’s] that is quite an extraordinary remembrance of President Eisenhower, and that will transform this plot of land.

This is neither an innocent nor a simple statement.  Its bookends are ultimately dismissive: (1) differences of opinion are simple matters of personal taste which aren’t worth talking about (except, we assume, among the professionals who know better), and (2) “transformation,” although it only means “change,” suggests the idea of improvement–highly arguable in this case.  (Construction of a Five Guys would be a really welcome transformation in this neighborhood, too.)  But then consider the stuffing: the design is “quite an extraordinary remembrance.”  Well yes, “extraordinary,” another word which is value-free, but meant to imply a positive idea.  It  simply means unusual, remarkable, sweeping: things that might be said of the design of the QE2 as well as the sinking of the Titanic.  More to the point, what “remembrance”?  The only remembering prompted by this memorial are the afterthought elements–the sculptures littered around and overwhelmed by the huge architectural forms.  They may communicate, but Gehry’s abstractions can only reflect what others see in them; they carry no memory.  They are the surface of the pond, not the well of wisdom.

Memoria is not just a root word taken from a dead language.  Memoria references a canon of rhetoric,  which is about the shaping and presentation of speech.  Memoria is about argument and inquiry; it is the recall of points within a debate.  That is where established languages of architecture are useful for memorial purposes.  We grow up with traditions that seep into our common understanding.  Whether or not a person can articulate the differences between each of the Orders, they usually recognize their general connection with institutions dedicated to the common good, and prevailing, positive values that have been commended since antiquity.  The fact that our institutions sometimes fail us is not a reason to reject this heritage; it is reason to demand that the institutions–and let’s be clear, we’re talking about people who are in charge of them–live up to their promise.  Arguments that these ideals are invalid are cynical at best, and nihilistic at worst.

The Gehry memorial should not be rejected because it is in a modernist style, or because it is too big, too expensive, or will be too hard to maintain.  It should be rejected because it fails to do its job to contribute to contemporary public discourse on its subject and will not share that understanding with future generations.  It communicates a trendy image that is destined to be outdated, which is not just disrespectful of its subject but an indictment of our public attitude toward history.  And if in that way it is indicative of the zeitgeist, it is the emblem of a people who have given up caring about and learning from their own legacy.

See the Memorial Commission website for best images of the proposal

Ulysses S. Grant Memorial (Henry Merwin Shrady & architect William Pearce Casey, 1902)


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