The Problem With the Frank Gehry Memorial

The Problem With the Frank Gehry Memorial
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Wednesday it was announced that a federal commission charged with building a national monument honoring President Eisenhower voted unanimously to approve elderly architect Frank Gehry's latest design for the monument.

At the outset, let me state, for the record: I am the wife of classical figurative sculptor Sabin Howard, who was courted by Gehry to be the sculptor for the memorial, asked to write a proposal, promised the gig to the tune of a verbal statement: "You will start next week," and then suddenly dropped.

There will be those who dismiss this post on that basis. I would like to point out to them that I am in a unique position to have witnessed the last year of the politicking around this memorial on the National Mall.

And the politicking has been nasty.

Notice, also, that this post is entitled, "The Problem with the Frank Gehry Memorial." Because to examine the plans for the memorial is to see a monument to a prominent architect's particular vision, not a memorial to a revered statesman, general, and President. While taste is personal and Americans love hubris, Gehry's imposition of his personal style does seem to fly in the face of President Eisenhower's modest origins, personal humility, and appeal to all sectors of society.

Gehry's is not the only hubris in evidence regarding this "unanimous decision." In reading the announcement, it is striking that Commission Chairman Rocco Siciliano speaks disparagingly of the Eisenhower family's objections: "The family deserves to be heard, not obeyed," he is alleged to have said.

It's a rhetorical masterpiece to spin the family's concerns as autocratic. But the rhetoric only thinly veils condescension, which reflects poorly on Siciliano in particular but also on the committee as a whole. For shame: surely this esteemed family deserves better than to be sneered at!

The Eisenhowers deserve better because their objections are thoughtful, persistent, echoed by many others, and valid. In fact, the Eisenhowers have courageously given voice to the concerns and objections of a great many people. But the announcement wasn't written to express that fact.

Nor was the announcement written to give hard facts that allow people to know the truth. For example, what wasn't said is how much Gehry's design will cost: at least $142 million of taxpayer money, according to sources.

Other crucial facts about the Gehry plans for the memorial were also omitted. In fact, the committee's announcement was, like Siciliano's depiction of the Eisenhower family, a piece of propaganda, omitting negative details that thoughtful people would question, and framing the players in a certain light. Some PR person put it together, hoping to cast the Eisenhowers as dictatorial and Frank Gehry as a good guy who "did listen."

In fact, Gehry did not listen, and the latest memorial shows the exact same problems that it always has. Gehry has consistently refused to address the Eisenhowers'--and many others'--concerns.

The centerpiece of this memorial to Gehry are woven metal tapestries. These tapestries will be gigantic, 80 feet tall. They will dominate the space and they are ugly. At best, they can be likened to concentration camp memorials, which can be seen around the world in monuments dedicated to remembering the Holocaust.

But should President Eisenhower be remembered in that context?

What is not said in the announcement is that part of the exorbitant expense of this memorial will be building the machinery to make the metal tapestries. The construction of these machines will take time. The committee mentions their urgency in the face of time elapsing, but conveniently, no mention is made of the time required to build Gehry's tapestries.

Another item not mentioned in the announcement, and this is perhaps only of concern to the squeamish, is that the weaving will leave spaces in the mesh. Those spaces may trap hapless birds who fly at the tapestry. Not a frequent occurrence, perhaps, and it has a grimly humorous ring to it. It's the kind of thing that will quickly be ridiculed. In fact, I expect to be ridiculed for it. But since I have heard it speculated on several times by different people, with repugnance, I am expressing this concern.

Would it really honor this great American for mall workers to pick out dead birds from his memorial? Or does Gehry and the commission propose leaving the dead birds in the tapestries to rot? That would really commemorate Ike.

What is also not mentioned in the PR announcement is that there are alternatives to Gehry's vision. There's a false dichotomy proposed: either Gehry's design, or nothing. It's a slippery slope in this world of politicking. But there are other options. There could even be a fair contest for the mall's designs. There never has been an open, fair contest for this memorial.

There should be. Wonderful results are possible. For example, it was a contest for a civic monument in 1401 in Florence, Italy that gave to the world an enduring memorial to the city's survival of the Black Plague: Ghiberti's doors for the Baptistery, which were so astonishingly beautiful that Michelangelo himself called them "The Gates of Paradise."

An open contest might, once again, yield something of enduring beauty and appeal, something that represents America in a way in which we can be proud. An open contest would keep things honest. But it would mean that big egos have to step aside, and an honorable American family must be respected. Is the committee able to do that?

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