WASHINGTON — A powerful commission overseeing civic art and architecture in the nation’s capital voted Thursday to approve the general concept and layout of Frank Gehry’s design for a national memorial honoring Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts reviewed Gehry’s plans for stone or bronze statues of the 34th president, and members voted 3-1 to approve the major elements. One commissioner voted no, saying the memorial’s landscape design needed to be further developed.
The design has drawn criticism from Eisenhower’s family and others for its departure from more classical monument architecture and for the large scale of some elements.
Gehry has proposed a memorial park with statues and images of Ike as president, as World War II hero and as a young boy from Kansas. The park would be framed by large metal tapestries depicting the Kansas landscape of his boyhood home. The tapestries, in particular, would set this memorial apart from any other in Washington.
The commissioners suggested one significant change in the concept, however. They urged Gehry to remove two smaller side tapestries and instead use only one as a backdrop for the memorial park and statues.
Alex Krieger, an architect and Harvard professor, voiced support for the overall design as an urban park but asked Gehry to rethink the side tapestries because he said they defy Gehry’s attempt to convey Eisenhower’s Midwestern humility. From some angles, “the first impression is not of humility but of bigness,” he said.
Commission Vice Chairman Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk said Krieger’s suggestion would improve the overall design.
“In fact, it may be much stronger in sort of thinking of it as a park primarily with the renewed focus of the objects against the tapestries as a backdrop,” said Plater-Zyberk, an architect who is dean of the University of Miami’s School of Architecture.
Gehry said his team had considered 10 different scenarios for the tapestries and would look at them again. The idea, he said, was to relate to the buildings around the memorial, which include the U.S. Department of Education, the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Air and Space Museum, which all relate to Eisenhower’s legacy.
The arts commission is one of two panels that must approve the design in order for the $142 million project to move forward. The 14-year-old memorial project has been on hold for more than a year after Eisenhower’s family and other groups raised objections to the design.
In 2011, the arts commission granted approval for Gehry’s overall concept, including the tapestries that have drawn objections for their “avant-garde approach.” This was the first review of the planned statues and stone or bronze images of Eisenhower.
The imagery would show Eisenhower as president signing the Civil Rights Act of 1957 to advance equal rights for African-Americans. Other sculptural elements would show the D-Day landing at Normandy in World War II as a backdrop for a statue depicting Eisenhower addressing his troops. A young Eisenhower would look out at his future accomplishments.
“It’s all about him, trying to represent him, who he was: His vision, his words, his life,” Gehry said. “The idea of the boy came from one of his speeches. He talked about Abilene a lot. It’s actually the heartland of America.”
Eisenhower’s family and other critics have called for a simple memorial. They have objected to showing Eisenhower as a boy and to the metal tapestries showing his Kansas home. Eisenhower’s grandson, however, previously served on the memorial commission that selected Gehry for the project.
No family members attended the review Thursday. Still, three other critics voiced their opposition.
Justin Shubow of a group called the National Civic Art Society said showing the former president and general as a young boy failed to convey any character or gravitas.
“He inspires not feelings of awe but of awe shucks,” Shubow told the commission.
Milton Grenfell, from the same group, told the commission Gehry’s design was random and chaotic.
“So how does a normal person perceive chaos?” Grenfell said. “We call it ugliness.”
A recently published 100-year history of the commission’s work, entitled “Civic Art,” shows national memorial projects are almost always controversial, from the Lincoln Memorial to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
The Eisenhower Memorial must be reauthorized by Congress in order to stay on track this year. A bill in the House, though, has called for it to be redesigned. An analysis of that idea by the Congressional Budget Office last week found that scrapping the current concept and developing an alternate plan through a new design competition would cost $17 million.
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