Saturday, June 30, 2012

How do we like Ike? Let me count the ways...

Yet another controversy is brewing over a proposed monument in Washington D.C. Last year there was the tumult over the Martin Luther King Memorial when it opened on the southwestern edge of the National Mall. The gargantuan likeness in stone of the civil rights leader was not the work of an American sculptor, but outsourced to China, much to the chagrin of detractors who, correctly I believe, felt that the commission should have gone to someone slightly more local.

The Franklin Delano Roosevelt monument a few steps away caused a stir when advocates supporting the rights of the disabled, objected to the focal point of the monument, a statue of the 32nd president whose cape partially obscurs the wheel chair in which he is sitting. The problem was solved by adding a second statue where FDR's wheelchair was in the open for all to see.

Before that, the World War II Memorial just west of the Washington Monument was roundly criticized for its location, blocking the previously unobstructed view between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monuments. The mother of all monumental battles took place in the 1980s when a controversial design by an undergraduate architecture student at Yale won the competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. You can read about those two monuments (and others) here.

The truth is, none of the monuments in our nation's capital were built without controversy including the two most famous, those dedicated to Abraham Lincoln and George Washington respectively. So it should come as no surprise that the latest projected monument, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial, would also stir up a fuss. What is surprising is the fact that the most vociferous critics of the planned memorial, are none other than the family of the general and president.

A closed competition was held with 44 entries being solicited by the Eisenhower Memorial Commission. The Commission selected the entry of Frank Gehry, arguably this country's most prominent architect. As has been the current trend in monument design since the Korean War Memorial in the 1990s, Gehry's monument is expansive and didactic; the design covers many aspects of the life of Eisenhower, going all the way back to his boyhood in Kansas.  A statue of the young Ike seated on a plank was to be the centerpiece of the memorial. Eisenhower's family felt the man who was at the helm of the command of Allied Forces during World War II and the 34th President of the United States would better be served remembered in those capacities, rather than as a barefoot farm boy in Kansas. The architect agreed to shift the focus of his monument to the adult Ike. Other changes have been requested and for his part, Gehry has been uncharacteristically amenable to the changes in the design.

Nonetheless, the good feeling from the architect has done little to dissuade detractors who oppose the current design for many reasons. There is you may have guessed, a blog devoted to the subject. It's title: "The Truth About the Eisenhower Memorial" leaves little to the imagination as to where the sympathies of its authors lie.

From that site, here are two letters from the Eisenhower family that enumerate their objections to Gehry's design.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower

Here's a post criticizing the memorial on philosophical and design grounds from Howard Blackson, a design and urban affairs specialist who is a contributor to the PlaceShakers blog.

On the flip side of the coin, here is a New York Times OpEd piece written by Witold Rybczynski who serves on the United States Commission of Fine Arts (one of the bodies that approved Gehry's design). Rybczynski makes a valid point that the monument will suffer if too many voices have their say about the final design. I agree wholeheartedly. One need only go a few blocks away from the site of the proposed monument to view the mess that is the WWII Memorial to see the effects of compromise, the inevitable result of "too many cooks in the kitchen." When it comes to a public memorial, perhaps we'd all be better off with a benevolent art czar/dictator hand picking an artist who is granted carte blanche in the design and execution of the project. The WWII Memorial proved that design by committee is rarely successful.

But I have a far more radical idea. Why not just can the whole idea?

Don't get me wrong, I think Dwight Eisenhower is among the most important Americans of the Twentieth Century. If anyone deserves a monument in the District of Columbia, (anyone who doesn't already have one that is), it is he. No my problem isn't with the subject, it's with the monuments. Something unsettling happened after the creation of the Vietnam Memorial in the 1980s. That particular monument evoked a public response that was remarkable. Since then there has been an explosion of proposals for monuments on the National Mall, each one attempting to replicate the scope, power and impact of "The Wall". So far all of them have failed to come close.

Part of the problem is that designers of the new monuments failed to take a cue from successful monuments of the past, namely that less is more. What evokes Washington D.C. and the memories of their subjects more than the utter simplicity of the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial?

The power of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial also lies in its simplicity. Stone slabs cut into the ground bear the names of the 58,000 fallen American servicemen and women. Its straightforward design inspires visitors, loved ones and strangers alike, to leave personal mementoes at the foot of the Wall, and take rubbings of the inscribed names. Most of the visitors today to The Wall have no direct connection at all, many of them are school groups on their ritual tour of Washington. They may be going through the motions but many can't help being moved, the vast ocean of names of the dead is too overwhelming. I have little doubt that the Vietnam Memorial, like its neighbor the Lincoln Memorial, will continue to evoke great passion long after the generation that inspired it is long gone.

It's a fallacy to believe that the impact of the Wall can ever be duplicated given the unique nature of the War in Vietnam. That hasn't stopped the deluge of proposals for new memorials, all conceived with the conceit: "if such and such a group can have a monument to their cause, why can't we?"  Every successive design has engaged in a battle of one upmanship, each one trying to be more inclusive, more educational, more moving, than the one that came before.

In that regard, Gehry's proposal for the Eisenhower Memorial takes the cake. In addition to the statue of Ike the barefoot farm boy on a plank, Gehry's design includes massive, eighty foot columns which support "tapestries" of woven steel which would depict leafless trees inspired by those found in the Kansas landscape. Gehry sees himself first and foremost as an artist, and in that role he feels it absolutely necessary to create something new and visionary, something that reflects the society in which we live. I'm not entirely sure what his feeling is about Dwight Eisenhower, but he's left us with plenty of comments about himself and his work, including this:
Life is chaotic, dangerous, and surprising. Buildings should reflect that.
I'm sure that when and if Gehry's design is built, it will be a knock your socks off kind of experience. It would also occupy enough space to contain the Washington and Jefferson Monuments as well as the Lincoln Memorial put together, with room to spare. Impressive as all that sounds, I'm still not so sure how enlightening it will be about its subject. Also, my guess is that "chaotic, dangerous and surprising" are not exactly the attributes the Eisenhower family had in mind when they set about lobbying for a monument to their ancestor. Perhaps they had the strange notion that the monument was intended to honor the general, not the architect.

This all reminds me an old children's book my wife dug up called "Millions of Cats." The story goes something like this:

A little old man and woman lived together in a nice old cottage, but they were very lonely. One day the man set out to get a cat for his wife to help keep her company. He found a field filled with cats of all shapes and sizes, but couldn't decide which one to take home as each cat was prettier than the one that came before it. So he took them all. When the man came home with literally millions of cats following him, his wife said: "How are we ever going to find room for all these cats?" The man scratched his head and told his wife she was right. He went out to tell the cats about his dilemma and asked them to decide amongst themselves who was the prettiest. Well cats being cats, they quarreled, each one claiming to be the prettiest of all. The argument got ugly and the man decided he'd best go inside and let the felines sort it out. The noise of the cat fight was deafening but eventually it stopped. The man and woman were shocked to see that all the cats had vanished except for a scrawny little one that was cowering in the bushes. "What happened?" said the old man to the emaciated kitty. "Well... " said the little cat, "all the other cats kept fighting and fighting over which one was the prettiest and eventually they just ate each other up." "And how come you didn't get eaten up?" said the old man. "Oh I'm just a homely little cat, when you asked who was the prettiest, I didn't say anything. So nobody bothered about me." And the little old man and woman took the cat into their home, fed, took care of and loved him, and eventually he became the prettiest of all the millions of cats.

So what's the moral of the story?

Just listen to the Eisenhower family and build the General a nice old fashioned statue on top of a pedestal, and everyone will live happly ever after.

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