There’s no shortage of monuments and memorials in Washington, D.C. -- and no shortage of critics, either. But the current debate over a memorial honoring President Dwight Eisenhower has reached capital proportions.
Much carping over the project -- scheduled to break ground next year for completion in 2015 -- has to do with its designer, starchitect Frank Gehry. Known for billowing shapes of curvilinear metal, Gehry’s structures have always raised eyebrows. Among the District’s staid right angles and white marble, Gehry is an even more controversial figure. Still, the proposed Eisenhower memorial, located just off the National Mall, is toned down: a central plaza surrounded by giant columns and huge metal “tapestries” with images related to the 34th president.
Supporters say Gehry is helping redefine what a memorial can be. Critics contend the design is too trendy, and that the uniformly cylindrical columns are cold. “It’s like lining up 13 Coke cans,” says D.C. architect Dhiru Thadani, who recently penned a criticism of the memorial for the New Urban Network website. “How interesting is that?”
Earlier this year, two architectural organizations launched a competition to select an alternate design, even though Gehry’s initial concept was approved more than 18 months ago. Most of the finalists -- Susan Eisenhower, Dwight’s granddaughter, spoke at the awards ceremony -- were decidedly traditional. The winning design featured a classic triumphal arch flanked by two statues -- Eisenhower the general and Eisenhower the president. But the overall intent wasn’t to put forward a single rival design, says Eric Wind, chairman of the National Civic Art Society, one of the contest sponsors. “We’re trying to inspire some change, and at least hopefully get the Gehry plan killed or get them to do something about it,” he says.
The design debate may yet continue: In Congress, the House’s proposed fiscal 2012 construction budget funds only a third of the project’s $83.7 million price tag.