Washington, D.C.’s cultural apparatchiks have long hankered for a Frank Gehry showpiece. On the eve of the new millennium, the director of Washington’s Corcoran Gallery implored Gehry, then basking in accolades for his titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, to enter a competition to design a major addition to Ernest Flagg’s century-old Beaux-Arts masterpiece. It was not a blind competition. (If it had been, Gehry would never have entered.) It was portfolio-based, which means reputation-based, with a handful of finalists invited to submit designs. Gehry entered and, to the surprise of no one, got the job.
His design, which would have doubled the gallery’s size, was pure Gehry. It featured three big misshapen stainless-steel folds billowing outward. To Flagg’s highly inventive structure, which nonetheless embodies the wisdom of the ages, Gehry responded with showy juvenilia in the deconstructivist mode he has made famous. It came with a $200 million price tag. The fundraising campaign tanked (thanks in part to the dot-com crash), and the design was never executed. The gallery closed in 2014.
Now, at long last, Washington can boast “a Gehry”: the $150 million Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial, which was inaugurated in September after two decades of controversy and delays. It combines postmodern pyrotechnics and pseudo-monumental kitsch on a stupendous scale.
Architecture traditionally involves structures characterized by organic complexity—structures that can be contemplated as wholes, before we study the way their parts relate to and reinforce the whole. This is the kind of architecture human beings instinctively prefer. Gehry, by contrast, specializes in inorganic complexity. His buildings are architectural heaps designed to look jumbled or rumpled, even to look like they’re coming apart—hence “deconstructivism.” The term has opened the door to all sorts of rarefied commentary about the precarious nature of reality in a world devoid of meaning.
Gehry produces signature buildings, advertisements for himself. The last thing one would have expected him to design is a national monument to such a distinguished (and unpretentious) public figure as Eisenhower, the Allied D-Day commander and America’s thirty-fourth president. Commemorative art directs attention to what we wish to remember and venerate. It requires enduring, symbolically resonant, spatially compact structures, whether architectural or sculptural. The idea of commissioning a specialist in ostentatious architectural discombobulation to design an Eisenhower memorial is absurd. But our postmodern culture is often absurd. And Gehry is a celebrity.
The Eisenhower Memorial’s most noteworthy feature is a huge billboard-like scrim, which the architect calls a “tapestry,” at the rear of its enormous four-acre site facing Independence Avenue and the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. This suspended screen of stainless-steel mesh rises as high as the Lincoln Memorial and is more than twice as wide. It hangs from six cylindrical shafts, each ten feet in diameter and clad in limestone. Welded onto the mesh are squiggly steel-cord lines. Seen during the day, these lines signify nothing. At night they are artificially lit, and from a distance they might possibly suggest a landscape with water in the foreground, an escarpment behind that, and hills in the distance. The landscape—based on a Gehry sketch in his trademark slapdash style—is supposed to represent the Pointe du Hoc in Normandy, heroically scaled by U.S. Army Rangers on D-Day.
In front of the scrim lies a plaza with two bronze statuary groups. One portrays Ike as president, with members of his staff; the other portrays him as D-Day commander exhorting men of the 101st Airborne. Each group is set against a tableau on a vertical slab: a map of the world on the one and amphibious landing craft in a watery expanse on the other. At the northwest corner of the site, a young statuary Ike, casually perched on a block, beholds the distant plaza and his future. The result is a narrative diorama, with the leaden realism of the statuary (the figures of General and President Eisenhower are particularly unanimated) reinforcing the banality of Gehry’s unmonumental design.
Gehry’s vast steel scrim screens almost the entire façade of the drab, two-block-long Brutalist box that is the Lyndon Baines Johnson Department of Education Building (1961). Thanks to the Johnson Building, the scrim’s transparency is an aesthetic problem. The north-facing windows look dark during the day, so that a grid of dark rectangles shows through the scrim, increasing its illegibility. And because the scrim is raised twenty feet off the ground, the lower portion of the Johnson building is left unscreened for a viewer in the central plaza, while the window grid appears on the scrim’s lower portion and the sky on the upper. The resulting mishmash might be comical if the joke weren’t on the public (and the taxpayer).
The Eisenhower Memorial offers plenty of cognitive confusion. In addition to the humongous shafts from which the scrims hang, one shaft stands at each front corner of the memorial site. Admirers of Gehry’s design have likened the shafts to remnants of a temple, though the architect has said they were inspired by grain silos in Ike’s native Kansas. The massive stone blocks that are arranged at skewed angles atop the slabs bearing the plaza statuary’s background tableaux might likewise evoke ruins in the minds of those with sufficiently elastic imaginations. The problem is that the shafts most resemble giant smokestacks, while the skewed blocks crowning the sculptural tableaux read as tiresome grist for the deconstructivist mill. The shafts were intended to provide spatial definition for the memorial site. Instead, they reinforce an overall sense of spatial desolation that, one hopes, will be mitigated as newly planted trees mature. (Even that will be a mixed blessing, because the trees will obstruct views of the scrim from Independence Avenue, further diminishing its legibility.)
The Eisenhower family, especially Ike’s granddaughter Susan Eisenhower, long opposed the scrim. Ike’s son John (Susan’s father), an army officer and historian who died in 2013, wanted a simple memorial with a statue in a verdant setting. His children shared his aversion to Gehry’s overwrought design. Simplicity was particularly appropriate given that the family did not want private funding for the memorial to divert resources from a number of Eisenhower legacy organizations. They wanted a federally funded memorial.
In 2016, former Secretary of State James A. Baker, an adviser to the congressionally chartered Eisenhower Memorial Commission, met with Susan and told her it would be either the Gehry design or no federally funded memorial. That ended the family’s opposition. Gehry opponents in Congress who had cited the Eisenhower family’s dissatisfaction in holding up appropriations gave in. This was good news for the memorial commission, because its private fundraising campaign, like the Corcoran’s, was a flop. The notorious unpopularity of Gehry’s design was certainly a factor. “Everyone still hates the planned Eisenhower Memorial,” Washingtonian magazine announced in a 2015 headline. Without government funding, it would never have been built.
A key figure in the Eisenhower Memorial fiasco was the late Rocco Siciliano, a prominent Los Angeles businessman and Gehry fan who served as the memorial commission’s original chairman. Siciliano, a decorated World War II veteran and Eisenhower Administration official, set the commission on its unpropitious mission of “redefining” the presidential memorial for the twenty-first century. The stage was set for Gehry to prevail in yet another portfolio-based competition. But the commission would have done well to ponder an important British monument conceived in less presumptuous terms.
In 2012—a few months after Susan likened Gehry’s scrim to an “Iron Curtain” and the gigantic shafts to missile silos in congressional testimony—Queen Elizabeth dedicated the Bomber Command Memorial at the west end of London’s Green Park, close by Hyde Park Corner. The venue features numerous stylistically varied monuments, most famous being the Duke of Wellington’s Apsley House (1778) and the Wellington Arch (1828). The memorial was long delayed by misgivings about the Allies’ resort to saturation bombing of urban areas during World War II. But the result is a fitting tribute to the more than 55,000 airmen—nearly half of all those who served in the Command—who lost their lives.
The memorial consists of a simple, dignified, open-air classical pavilion of limestone, rectangular in plan and surmounted by a handsome balustrade, with Greek Doric porticos facing heavily trafficked Piccadilly to the north and the park to the south. The walls flanking the porticos are decorated with carved insignia of the Royal Air Force and the Bomber Command. Inside, larger-than-life bronze statues of seven airmen, mounted on a pedestal of reddish-purple porphyry, peer out toward the park.
The bronze statues provide a figurative counterpoint to their architectural setting but do not share the classical principles of form that shaped it. They were modeled in a realist manner that takes its cues from Rodin—specifically, his Burghers of Calais, with their exaggeratedly contrasting modes of pathos. The Bomber Command sculptor, Philip Jackson, has given us a more understated study of the psychological states of the members of a bomber crew than did Rodin in his ensemble. Ranging from pilot to rear gunner, they have just returned from a mission. Some seem to be scanning the horizon to see how many other planes in their squadron made it back; two are consumed by thoughts of what they’ve just been through. The arrangement is such that only their backs are visible on the Piccadilly side—a somewhat awkward scheme—but the realism is effective. These airmen captivate visitors in a way the simplistic mannikins at the Eisenhower Memorial cannot.
The pavilion’s vaulted ceiling features a diamond-patterned network of aluminum struts supporting a membrane of the same material—an allusion to bomber construction. The symmetrical vault rises to frame the unglazed rectangular skylight above the statues. The skylight’s rim is inscribed with the RAF motto, Per Ardua Ad Astra (“Through Adversity to the Stars”). The interior is spare. The walls flanking the statues include central niches that are not capped by the usual semidomes. The niches harbor bronze torchères with fluted shafts that at night illuminate the inscriptions above—one a dedication to the Command’s dead, one a testament from Churchill: “The fighters are our salvation but the bombers alone provide the means of victory.” An interior inscription on the rear portico’s entablature acknowledges the victims of the bombing. Where inscriptions are concerned, less is more. The balance struck here is vastly preferable to the lengthy excerpts from Eisenhower speeches with which Gehry’s memorial is larded.
Hyde Park Corner, situated at what was once the western entrance to London, is not a spatially well-defined venue. Six busy thoroughfares—including Knightsbridge from the west, Piccadilly from the east, and Park Lane from the north—converge there. It is a pleasure to look from the Corner across bustling Park Lane and Piccadilly to behold the Bomber Command pavilion in the near distance, with its Doric colonnades extending to each side of the pavilion in response to Decimus Burton’s Ionic colonnade (1825), with its grand central entrance to Hyde Park, located next to Apsley House.
A deconstructivist might well have intensified the sense of disorder and fragmentation at this historic site. One can imagine Gehry commemorating the Bomber Command with another ruinous tour de force—perhaps a mangled aluminum pile suggestive of a plane crash. The Bomber Command Memorial’s architect, Liam O’Connor, sought instead to contribute to a sense of wholeness—to what the late Robert Venturi would have called a “difficult whole.” He succeeded.
Sadly, our nation’s capital is stuck with an elephantine memorial designed by an architect lacking O’Connor’s grasp of monumental symbolism and decorum. O’Connor was focused on his honorific brief. Gehry was focused on making a splash. Our nation’s effort to honor a great general and a popular and effective president thus resulted in an extravagant exercise in memorial sprawl: a half-baked Ike theme park. We can only hope that, a generation from now, visitors will enjoy picnic lunches in the shade of its trees, gazing impassively at the banal statues, making light of the metallic fandango in the background, and wondering what on earth Eisenhower would make of it all.
Catesby Leigh writes about public art and architecture and lives in Washington, D.C.