A Way Around the Eisenhower Memorial Impasse

Whatever has been going on in the design process for the Eisenhower Memorial so far, significant public participation has been missing.

After more than a decade of planning, the future of the presidential memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower, at least as conceived by architect Frank Gehry, is no longer certain. In September, the National Capital Planning Commission declined for the second time to review Gehry’s design; construction cannot begin without its approval. This is the latest in a series of setbacks for the current proposal, which includes the suspension of its Congressional funding (now temporarily restored through a continuing budget resolution) and an investigation by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform into the process used to select Gehry.

The debate over his design grows more contentious as its future becomes less certain. With both supporters and opponents dug in, victory for either side will likely bring further discord. This is not the path to the unifying national symbol we expect presidential memorials to be. We need to find another one, to consensus rather than division. This path is easy to see when we retrace the steps to our current divided and uncertain circumstances.

In 1999 Congress created the Eisenhower Memorial Commission to design and build a permanent memorial to our thirty-fourth president. The commission made the unusual choice to find its designer through the General Services Administration’s (GSA) Design Excellence Program, which is often used for federal projects with especially demanding technical and security requirements. For that reason the program considers only registered architects with relevant experience, and on those grounds Gehry was chosen to design a memorial whose functional requirements are actually rather simple.

In 1996 another commission proposed using the Design Excellence Program to find a designer for the National World War II Memorial. That approach was scrapped when public protests called it exclusive and undemocratic. The commission sponsored a public design competition open to everyone who wished to enter, not just registered architects. Such public competitions are in fact customary for our national monuments. We used them for four of the last five memorials on the Mall and all three of the national September 11th memorials. When asked why the Eisenhower Memorial Commission used this closed process instead, former GSA chief architect Edward Feiner, who helped craft the selection guidelines, said, “The client wanted an outcome…they did not want to take risk.”

Whatever has been going on in the design process for the Eisenhower Memorial so far, significant public participation has been missing. Without it there can be no meaningful consensus, because the public is ultimately both the client and the audience for this memorial. Design competitions open to everyone are proven paths to consensus through participation.

The current debate over Gehry’s design offers no alternatives and thus no real choice. But fair and open processes often develop from just such unsatisfying circumstances. The current controversy also presents the opportunity to reestablish a public design process that that reinforces our democratic political one. And that, in itself, would make a good memorial to Dwight Eisenhower.

Sam Roche is a writer and a lecturer at the University of Miami School of Architecture. He is the spokesman for Right by Ike: Project for a New Eisenhower Memorial.

Categories: Architecture