A Placemaking Journal

Eisenhower Memorial Controversy Puts Focus on Urban Design

Having worked in communities big and small across the continent, we’ve had ample opportunity to test ideas and find approaches that work best. Urban design details. Outreach tactics. Implementation tricks. Many of these lessons are transferable, which is why we’ve created “Back of the Envelope,” a weekly feature where we jot ’em down for your consideration.

How do we honor our heroes?

The current dust-up over Frank Gehry’s proposed Dwight D. Eisenhower memorial has brought the issue, and the conversation, to the forefront. Within it has been some well-articulated opposition from prominent urbanists, including this from Léon Krier, this from Dhiru Thadani and this from Christine Franck.

Perhaps not surprisingly for regular readers here, I’ve got my own ideas on the matter, centered on place and the general premise that we best honor those of great contribution and sacrifice by doing so with deference. Not just to the complexities of their individual legacies but to the surrounding urban context as well.

My submission to the committee spells out my position:

House Committee on Natural Resources
Attn. Chief Legislative Clerk
1324 Longworth House Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20515

Dear Mr. Chairman and Distinguished Members:

As a member of the General Services Administration (GSA) Design Excellence Peer Review Committee, I wish to share my professional design opinion that Frank Gehry’s proposal, as presented to your National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Oversight Subcommittee Hearing on March 20th, is irrelevant to the point of disrespectful in its attempt to memorialize President Eisenhower.

Being 2012, our nation’s architectural culture is finally unshackled from the 20th-century’s ‘Starchitect’ conceit. We are again able to design freely with tradition, context, urbanism, sustainability and pragmatism. These 21st-century values should be expressed through our memorials and civic buildings as these places are complex and deftly built to balance both memory and expectation. It is my opinion that Mr. Gehry’s latest-modernist-paradigm-above-all-else plan intends to add metaphorical complexity to an already complex place, reducing the visitor’s experience to one of confusion.

The Eisenhower Memorial Commission and Frank Gehry’s mixed-metaphor project intentionally lacks the expected dignity in remembrance of President Eisenhower. Upon review, the plan actually appears to be a memorial to the latest modernist fad, Landscape Urbanism. The contradicting landscape metaphors imposed on a visitor include: a roofless memorial; a park within a park; the rural Kansas barefoot boy-warrior; a rural landscape ‘tapestry’ set in contrast to our nation’s urban, civic core context, and; a naturalistic landscape grown in ‘modern’ ruins that do in fact ‘ruin’ L’Enfant’s planned axis from the Capital to the Jefferson Memorial along Maryland Avenue.

Because of these many conflicting, faddish metaphors, Mr. Gehry’s irrelevant design proposal challenges the very essence of a national memorial in Washington DC, which again has nothing to do with the memory of President Eisenhower. Simply imagining a Frank Gehry brand building makes it easy to understand his limitations as an architect to craft a civic building that has, according the GSA guiding principles for Federal Architecture, “design qualities which reflect the regional architectural traditions of that part of the Nation in which buildings are located.”

Fortunately, the critique surrounding this project is indicative of the declining status of contemporary ‘Starchitecture’ in our national discourse. The backlash towards Mr. Gehry’s project failure points towards a maturity within our nation’s architectural culture as we collectively demand a more responsible approach for how we build great civic places in the 21st century. We will once again build dignified memorials that fit within the context of our honorable National Mall. 

In light of this failed GSA Design Excellence project process, I recommend your Subcommittee also consider the design alternatives and open design process presented by the National Civic Art Society and Institute for Classical Architecture Mid-Atlantic Chapter. 

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely yours,

–Howard Blackson

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