Infernal Machine   /   May 1, 2014

Frank Gehry and the Enigma of American Monumentalism

Pity Frank Gehry? The great architect of the anti-monumental, so wily and free and unpredictable in form, with so little obvious care for function, got outflanked by the Eisenhower Memorial complex. Pity Frank Gehry? Heroic in his anti-heroic innovations, replete with rejections of the old-world style, he could not overcome the dignified decorum of D.C.'s National Mall. Though he, as much as anybody, seems to understand the modernist enigma that was President Eisenhower, he could not solve the enigma of the American national memory.

In case you hadn’t heard (and it is quite likely you hadn’t) Gehry’s design of the Eisenhower Memorial for the National Mall—unanimously selected by the Eisenhower Memorial Commission in 2010—was rejected in April by the National Capital Planning Commission, and this after Congress refused to fund the project in January.

Since the concept was first presented, Gehry’s memorial design has been the target of fiery criticism by an assortment of people, from columnists to politicians to architects to historians to members of the Eisenhower family. The objections have been manifold, but typically have revolved around three issues: the design overplays Eisenhower’s childhood roots in Kansas relative to his wartime heroism; its scale and size is too grandiose; and its style is “modernist."

Gehry's design for the Eisenhower Memorial was selected by the Eisenhower Memorial Commission in 2010. (Credit: Eisenhower Memorial Commission)

Susan Eisenhower, the former president's granddaughter, led the charge against the focus on Kansas from the early days of the design's public release. "Memorials in Washington speak for the nation as a whole," she was quoted at saying. "The nation is not grateful because he grew up in rural America. He defeated Nazi Germany. He led us through tumultuous times in war and peace." Of course, Kansans would differ!

Then there's the size issue. The New Yorker's Jeffrey Frank wrote:

From the start, something has been a little off with this undertaking, beginning with its preposterous scale. Dwight D. Eisenhower was certainly not a modest man; he had his share of vanities. Even late in life, he was very much the incarnation of a five-star general. But he was not someone who showed off. He didn’t swan around with his medals when he was a soldier, and, as President, he was willing to let others take the credit (as well as the blame) for Administration actions.

That Gehry's design would require a bloated budget only magnified the complaint. As Frank pointed out, again in The New Yorker, "The revised design has more man than boy, but the memorial, which so far has cost more than sixty-two million dollars—a sum that would have appalled the fiscally austere Eisenhower—has still produced little more than acrimony."

With regard to its "modernist" style, Roger Lewis, professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland, wrote in The Washington Post

Among the most strident complainers have been those condemning the aesthetic style of the memorial. Generally disliking architectural modernism, they strongly prefer a classically inspired memorial design. These critics argue that civic structures employing a modernist or avant-garde vocabulary just don’t belong in the nation’s capital, where so many classically derivative government edifices, museums and monuments have been built. To them, selecting Gehry was a colossal error.

The protests against Gehry's style grew so strident as to produce a full-fledged “Toward a New Eisenhower Memorial” campaign under the auspices of the National Civic Art Society, a group advocating “a traditional artistic counterculture” to oppose “a postmodern, elitist culture that has reduced its works of ‘art’ to a dependence on rarified discourse incomprehensible to ordinary people.” The group has, among other things, come near to conspiratorial sensationalism,  suggesting the memorial commission fixed the design competition, and offering “rarely seen” and “shocking” photos of the “tapestry” Gehry would include in his design. Gehry, it is clear from the group's website, is a threat to the nation: on it, they pit “Frank Gehry in His Own Words” (e.g. "I’m confused as to what’s ugly and what’s pretty”) against  “Eisenhower in His Own Words” (e.g. "What has happened to our concept of beauty and decency and morality?”).

The “Toward a New Eisenhower Memorial” campaign, whose motto is “We’d like what Ike would’ve liked, ” has held a competition for an alternative design, offering neoclassical columns, arches and even an obelisk to properly memorialize the late president. Unfortunately, they would not grant me permission to show one of the countermemorial designs in this post. Justin Shubow, the president of the organization, told me that the National Civic Art Society owns exclusive rights to the image I wanted to post (a neo-classical arch with "Eisenhower" inscribed across the top), and that they would not permit me to display it on The Infernal Machine. He further explained that the competition was run on a small budget, and that many of the entries were by students, seemingly attempting to explain the less than stellar quality of the designs.To see some of the countermemorial designs, including the one I wanted to show,  you can go here, here, and here.

Oh boy, Gehry (and more than one of his employees) must be thinking. And rightly so. For regardless of his taste, Eisenhower was without doubt the first “modernist” U.S. president, the architecton of missiles, missile silos, massive interstate systems, efficient underground backyard nuclear bomb shelters, consumer capitalism, space monkeys, and so on. There is, even today, a hollowed-out mountain out West, built in the 1950s with great effort and at great expense, in which sits, at the end of a labyrinth of tunnels, the "Eisenhower bedroom." It's one of many places the president could sleep in relative peace in case of a nuclear war. Now that's what I would call preposterous scale! That, we might even say, is modernism!

At the same time, in the spirit of modernist enigma, Eisenhower more than any other president in modern history preached the incapacity of matter and form to adequately symbolize ideals. “No monument of stone,” General Eisenhower declared after World War II regarding the soldiers who had died, “no memorial of whatever magnitude could so well express our respect and veneration for their sacrifice as would perpetuation of the spirit of comradeship in which they died.” As president, Eisenhower was guided by the idea that America and the rest of the world needed to get beyond old European ways, which had produced disaster after disaster, and enter into a new age of spirit.

This spirit, moreover, was the spirit of the future, not the past. As Eisenhower declared at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1946 of the United States, “Now we enter on an era of widened opportunity for physical and spiritual development, united in a determination to establish and maintain a peace in which the creative and expressive instincts of our people may flourish.” Two years later, 1948, the abstract painter Barnett Newman sounded the same theme in “The Sublime is Now”: “We are reasserting man’s natural desire for the exalted, for a concern with our relationship to the absolute emotions. We do not need the obsolete props of an outmoded and antiquated legend. . . We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been the devices of Western European painting.”

To be sure, Eisenhower more than once expressed his distaste for, and his inability to understand, modernist art. But it was Eisenhower’s C.I.A. that propagated modernist art across the globe as a distinctly liberal and American art form, and the president’s basic ideas about America were a kind of optimistic version of avant garde ideas: productivity, spirit, opportunity, freedom, faith  . . . these were the watchwords of the Eisenhower presidency. “Tradition” was not.

But what of General Eisenhower, the old-style hero of D-Day? When Eisenhower decided to run for president he put his general’s uniform in the closet and assumed, instead, the mantel of the “ordinary” American, the man from Abilene, the main subject of Gehry’s original design. Hyper-aware of the disastrous militarism of Europe, President Eisenhower constantly tried to deflect attention from his own heroic persona (by purposefully fumbling through press conferences and making regular references to golf, among other things). He, instead, in an ongoing polemic against FDR and other “iconic” leaders (read, Hitler!), tried to direct national attention away from the monumental achievements of great men like himself and toward the greatness of American ideals, ideals that, like the spirit of the sacrifice of American soldiers in World War II, could not be adequately represented by monumental leaders or colossal obelisks. That missiles remain one of the great colossal leftovers of the Eisenhower era, and the fact that Eisenhower remained, even after putting his general's uniform in the closet, the most military minded of all twentieth-century American presidents (helping hold the world hostage to a nuclear arms race, fighting covert wars through the C.I.A., and building the military-industrial complex that he would warn against in his famous Farewell Address), well, this is the modernist enigma that was Eisenhower.

It's hard to memorialize an enigma. That's what Frank Gehry has been trying to do. It's the sort of challenge artists like Gehry love to tackle; it’s a task well suited to a (post)modernist. But Gehry has run up against an even more powerful enigma, that of American national monumentalism, which has repeatedly returned to “traditional” neoclassical forms of old-world Europe to give expression to the sublime spirit of the new world. So go ahead and pity Frank Gehry.