The Not-So-Hidden Agenda Against Gehry’s DC Memorial

The project may become a victim in a culture war, where ideas like Modernism, abstraction, and uncertainty are perceived as products of “liberal elites.

Images courtesy Eisenhower Memorial Commission

This morning I received a breathless (as in, accusatory! alarming!) press release from an organization called the National Civic Art Society. They’re the Washington-based group that’s orchestrated much of the opposition to Frank Gehry’s proposed design for the Eisenhower Memorial. “National Civic Art Society Calls Attention to Conspicuous Gap in the Eisenhower Memorial Commission’s Meeting Minutes,” read the headline. The release—short on actual facts but long on incriminating conjecture—then went on to accuse the commission of secretly approving adoption of the General Services Administration’s Design Excellence Program as the method of choosing a designer for the memorial, as if organizing a competition and inviting the best available architects were an indictable offense. Imagine that?

The group has been banging the anti-Gehry drum for the past few months, which for me raises a different question: who the hell is the National Civic Art Society? They’re a non-profit “dedicated to the humanistic practice of architecture, urban design, and the fine arts.” If the organization’s website is any indication, the definition of “humanistic architecture” here is pretty much anything built or designed prior to the advent of the modern movement (present day classicists, excluded). Its leadership is comprised of people from, among other places, the Heritage Foundation (those wonderful folks who provided the policy rationale for the Iraq war), the American Enterprise Institute (a right wing think tank; Lynne Cheney is a proud alum), Commentary magazine, and The American Conservative.

They have all sorts of problems with the design. It’s anti-monumental, shows Eisenhower as a boy instead of exclusively as a conquering hero, uses flimsy materials (scrims, not stone), and includes the participation of the artist Charles Ray, “whose work has been called obscene by critics.” As ludicrous as some of this sounds, I’m not sure Frank Gehry or his design is really the issue. I suspect the National Civic Art Society would object to anything that veered from the traditional.

Web_Eisenhower Memorial_Bas Relief Schematic

We’re now in culture-war territory, where ideas like Modernism, abstraction, uncertainty, or even design are perceived as products of “liberal elites.” We’ve been down this road before. Critics wanted Maya Lin’s design for the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial scrapped, but the sponsoring commission held firm. Let’s hope the Eisenhower commission shows the same courage. After all, they knew Gehry wasn’t going to plop a statue in the park. It’s not why you hire Frank Gehry.

Also see Leon Krier’s critique of the Eisenhower Memorial.

Categories: Cultural Architecture