An Insult to Ike

“I think it’s going to be very modest,” remarked the architect Frank Gehry. 

Modest? Gehry’s plans for his proposed Dwight Eisenhower Memorial in Washington DC are anything but. This enormous “thing” — there really is no word to describe it — will have ten 80ft “towers” (each about the height of an eight-storey building) supporting a series of massive metal screens, which the architect calls “tapestries” of the same dimension, depicting leafless trees. 

Costing $100 million of taxpayers’ money, this confection will cover four acres of land just off the Mall (Ike might have liked this part because it looks like a golf course). 

There are so many things wrong with Gehry’s plan that it’s hard to know where to start. That his gargantuan folly is a premeditated offence to the Mall’s great neoclassical monuments to Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln may be the least of them. 

The classical tradition that inspired the planners of the White House, the Capitol, and most of the buildings flanking the Mall, embodies order, tradition, and stability, the exact opposites of Gehry’s malicious deconstruction of a thousand years of meaningful architecture.

Of course, his desire to épater les bourgeois is exactly what makes him so attractive to some. After his Bilbao museum rocketed him to international stardom, he become the architect of the elite establishment, much in demand by cities and institutions eager to demonstrate their hipness. 

To date Gehry has nothing in Washington, although he was commissioned to build an addition to the Corcoran Gallery which would have looked like the wreckage of a jumbo jet crashed into the building’s elegant neoclassical structure. Fortunately, the gallery ran out of money and steam.

But now he’s back with a vengeance to have a crack at the Eisenhower Memorial, which if built (it’s on the verge of approval even though Ike’s grandson David Eisenhower has resigned from the Eisenhower Memorial Commission and the entire Eisenhower family made their opposition to the plan public) would turn Ike into a footnote to Gehry’s ego. As a proper postmodernist Gehry doesn’t believe in heroes or, as he has said, in the quaint notion of right or wrong.

So it’s not surprising that his monument to the two-time president and commander of the Allied forces that stormed the Normandy beaches to defeat an evil empire, will consist of metal tapestries, leafless trees and meaningless towers partially enclosing an incoherent space. And in the middle of it all, “the barefoot boy from Kansas”, as Gehry calls him, may well wonder what happened to his, and our, history.

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