Honoring Ike with a monstrosity
We could wearily shrug, say “Oh, well,” and economize waste and annoyance by just building the proposed $142 million Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial. But long after its perpetrators are gone, it would squat there, representing Washington at its worst.
This saga of arrogance and celebrity worship began in 1999 when Congress created the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission (EMC). Sixteen years later, and eight years after the project's 2007 scheduled completion, scores of millions have been squandered and there is no memorial and no immediate prospect of building one.
It is good news that the money has been wasted: The atrocious proposal has not become a permanent blight across from Independence Avenue's Air and Space Museum at the foot of Capitol Hill. More good news: Congress has not appropriated a penny of the $68 million the EMC requested for construction in 2016, and private fundraising is too anemic to allow architect Frank Gehry to sprawl his preposterous memorial across four acres.
Gehry's original proposal was for something so gargantuan it would block some views of the Capitol: There would be a statue of Eisenhower, but as a Kansas boy, and three 80-foot-tall metal “tapestries” depicting episodes from Eisenhower's boyhood and military and political careers. Gehry's monstrosity has been tweaked and now is a tweaked monstrosity.
Gehry is 86, world famous and impatient with philistines who note that his proposal is discordant with the Mall's aesthetic. But Prometheus need not conform: “There are sorts of rules about architectural expression which have to fit into a certain channel. Screw that.” Gehry has prospered during his ordeal at the hands of people with tastes less refined than his: His firm has pocketed $16 million so far from work on Ike's nonexistent memorial.
Michael J. Lewis, a professor of art at Williams College, notes that Gehry's proposal fails for the same reason the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial does. King, an orator, is depicted with his lips sealed, stern and almost dour, his arms stolidly crossed. The Eisenhower and King that America knew disappear.
Because monuments are public art, they should, Lewis says, be “legible.” Hence, societies have traditionally resorted to triumphal arches, temples, colossal columns and obelisks, not because they are ancient but because they are timeless. The classic vocabulary of monuments looks backward: The Jefferson Memorial, Lewis notes, makes us think not of 1940 but of Jefferson.
Nowadays, monuments are, Lewis says, “discursive, sentimental, addicted to narrative literalism.” The Franklin Roosevelt Memorial, completed in 1997, is, Lewis notes, “preachy” and a “cross-pollination of a diorama with a Madame Tussauds wax museum.” There is talk of a “digital e-memorial” at the Eisenhower Memorial, presumably to translate Gehry's understanding of his masterwork for understandably bewildered visitors.
Washington's Mall and its environs, one of the world's most elegant urban spaces, is becoming cluttered with commemorative bric-a-brac dispensed by Congress that can be called “recognition pork barrel,” mollifying this and that constituency's clamor for acknowledgment of this or that. Eisenhower certainly merits a memorial, but one consonant with his astonishing achievements and Midwestern unpretentiousness.
George F. Will is a columnist for The Washington Post and Newsweek.