Friday, March 23, 2012

Defending the Eisenhower Memorial Design

Speaking for the United States Commission for Fine Arts, Witold Rybczynski defends the design they have selected for the Eisenhower Memorial:
The Eisenhower memorial is to be located on a parcel of land just south of the National Mall, between the National Air and Space Museum and the Department of Education building. It covers four acres, slightly more than the area of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The proposed memorial would not sprawl over the entire site, as some critics have maintained. What Mr. Gehry has done is to place the memorial to the 34th president in what is effectively a new public park.

The dominant feature of the memorial, and one of the design elements to which the Eisenhower family objects, is the 80-foot-high colonnade that rings the site. The design has been described, somewhat pejoratively, as “Gehryesque,” as if it were an alien presence.

But this is precisely what it is not. As my former colleague on the United States Commission of Fine Arts, Michael McKinnell, pointed out when the commission reviewed the design (we unanimously approved the general concept), this is, in effect, a roofless building; more specifically, it is a roofless classical temple — in a city replete with classical monuments. Moreover, it provides a sense of cohesion to this city’s currently fragmented urban space.

The colonnade supports a metal screen that carries images of the Kansas landscape in which Eisenhower grew up. When first confronted with this idea, I was concerned that mechanically imprinted screens, which the architect insisted on calling “tapestries,” would resemble large billboards. Since then Mr. Gehry and his collaborators have developed hand-weaving techniques so that the screens really do resemble tapestries. Having seen full-size mock-ups of the screens on the site, I am convinced that their size will not be out of scale with the surroundings.

Another target of the critics is the proposal to include a statue of the president as a youth, recalling that he sometimes referred to himself as a “Kansas farm boy.” Some consider this an affront to a man who was a victorious five-star general as well as a successful two-term president; others find it a touching reminder of Eisenhower’s modest Midwestern roots. I fall in the second camp, but in either case, it is important to recognize that the statue, whose design has not been finalized, will not be the only, or the largest, representation of the president on the site. The design, as it currently stands, includes two very large bas-reliefs of Eisenhower, one as military leader and one as president, as well as inscribed quotations. In this context, the small statue will have the effect of a footnote. 
Addressing criticism of the "closed" process by which the design was chosen, in which only noted architectural firms were invited to compete,  Rybczynski notes that only two architects were invited to submit designs for the Lincoln Memorial, and that it was also criticized when the design was first revealed.

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