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Architecture


NCPC sends Eisenhower Memorial design back for changes

After a five-hour hearing yesterday, the National Capital Planning Commission decided not to approve the current design for the Eisenhower Memorial. Although the commissioners praised various elements of the design, they found that the size and location of the 80-foot metal tapestries unacceptably disrupted key viewsheds and divided the site too starkly.


Sightlines through the model. All images from Gehry Partners/AECOM.

The "disapproval" does not mean a restart. Congressman Darrell Issa, who holds a seat on the commission as chairman of the House Oversight Committee, made a rare personal appearance. (NCPC formally includes multiple Congressional chairmen and Cabinet secretaries, but most of the time, staff from those committees and agencies actually go to the meeting.)

Issa pushed for NCPC to have the design team back every other month until they get the memorial approved, a motion which passed 7 to 3. Issa explicitly emphasized that the decision today was not a rejection.

NCPC voted to accept the staff's recommendations, meaning their interpretations of the design principles are no longer up for debate. The memorial cannot visually disrupt the 160-foot Maryland Avenue right of way. Any structures must be 50 feet or more from Independence Avenue. And the design can't divide the space into multiple precincts.

On the other hand, NCPC rejected calls from the Committee of 100 to retain the vehicular roadway on Maryland Avenue as a twin of Pennsylvania Avenue. The memorial will cut off one block of Maryland Avenue. It's not clear if the staff's strict interpretation of the L'Enfant Plan viewshed applies to other projects, such as the DC streetcar.


Partial view of the memorial core. "Presidency" tablet at left, Young Eisenhower at right.

Public and commissioners had many objections

Just over half of the public comments disapproved of some aspect of the design, for different reasons. Robert Miller, a mayoral appointee One of the commissioners said he didn't care about the intrusion to Independence Avenue, but cared a great deal about how the memorial intruded into the Maryland Avenue viewshed.

John Hart, the presidential appointee from Maryland, said he admired the tapestries, but found the size of the columns unacceptable. Issa felt that without representations of Eisenhower's life, the tapestries lost their original appeal. He and Department of Defense representative Bradley Provancha asked for more content about Eisenhower's domestic achievements.

The commissioners that have already worked on the project, the National Park Service's Peter May and Mina Wright from the General Services Administration, were its principal defenders. They challenged the process, the interpretation of the design principles, and political involvement. NPS is set to own the memorial, while GSA will manage the construction.

May and Wright both spoke out about the many erroneous claims made during testimony, for and against. Wright specifically asked the EMC staff architect to correct some facts. Peter May said that if the accusations of flimsiness about the tapestries were true, the Park Service would not have approved the memorial.

In the strangest moment of the day, Illinois Congressman Aaron Schock eloquently condemned a version of the memorial that has been obsolete since at least May 2013.

What happens next?

There is no doubt that the tapestries, as we've seen them so far, will not reappear. They may shrink, or they may disappear, leaving the memorial core as the most prominent element. I think that the core tableau has become the strongest element of the design, and can survive the loss of the tapestries.

There is also a strong possibility that architect Frank Gehry will walk off the project. That does not necessarily mean that the current scheme will leave with him. Under the contract, the Memorial Commission owns the design, which is 95% complete. Given the political climate at the NCPC meeting, if the architect left, it's likely they would continue to alter the design without Gehry Partners.

Taking control of the design away from the designer has a long history in Washington. The most notable example is right across the street. The National Museum of the American Indian fired architect Douglas Cardinal in a financial dispute, but the final design is clearly his.

The final possibility is that the memorial commission will scrap the design. Longtime critics of the memorial have proposed selecting a new designer in a competition. Given the repeated insistence that the design process end soon, it seems unlikely enough people would be willing to risk another extended design process.

Long processes are not uncommon to the history of memorial designs. The FDR memorial went through four years of design review, just to wait 17 years for funding. The challenge will be trying to find conceptual clarity and design integrity amid the increasingly complex pressure.

Correction: Robert Miller has posted a comment saying he was not the one who worried about the Maryland Avenue viewshed; his main objection is with the columns. We have removed Miller's name from that comment in the article.

Public Spaces


The Eisenhower Memorial is moving forward, but metal tapestries might get in the way of the view

A proposed memorial to President Eisenhower in Southwest DC keeps trudging through the federal approvals process, even as it's surrounded by controversy. But federal planners want some changes, especially to the way the memorial affects views of the Capitol.


The Eisenhower Memorial from Independence Avenue, SW. All images from Gehry Partners/AECOM.

The National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) will review the project at its meeting Thursday. NCPC doesn't decide whether the memorial is aesthetically good enough; that job lies with the Commission on Fine Arts. But it will consider whether the design meets various technical requirements, complies with federal laws on memorials, and most of all how it fits into the commission's interpretation of the L'Enfant Plan.

The NCPC staff recommendation carries a lot of weight with the commission board, which will make the decision. The big news in the report was that repeated tests found that the 80-foot-tall stainless steel tapestries, which are a major (and very controversial) part of the design, dramatically exceeded durability requirements.

The National Park Service also found that the memorial's maintenance costs would be about the same as those of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, and less than half of the World War II Memorial's.


A 2014 plan drawing of the memorial square.

The report says that the current design meets 4 of the 7 principles NCPC set down for the memorial in 2006: It creates a green space, respects the surrounding architecture, helps to restore Maryland Avenue, and creates a unique commemorative space.

However, the staff had some objections about how the tapestries affect the monumental openness the NCPC sees in the L'Enfant Plan. Other concerns revolved around lighting and pedestrian circulation.

The design of the memorial has changed considerably over the past four years. Critics have portrayed Frank Gehry's attitude as inflexible, but the NCPC submission package shows a dizzying number of alternatives and tweaks. Documents given to the CFA show even more.

In the wake of a bitter conflict with President Eisenhower's grandchildren, Gehry added larger-than-life statues in front of the bas reliefs, adjacent to a life-size statue of teenaged Eisenhower. These changes rightly put more emphasis on Eisenhower's accomplishments.

Officials wanted to be sure the tapestries would survive exposure to the elements over a long period of time. Independent studies tested tapestry elements' resistance to corrosion, impact, and fatigue. The corrosion tests subjected the tapestry to water, salt, soot, and sulfur dioxide, simulating acidic pollution that causes damage to the stone and bronze typical of DC's monuments.


The side tapestries serve as gateways to the memorial complex.

Using the stainless steel alloy that the fabricator has chosen, 317L, there was almost no corrosion, and welds held 5 times the expected load even after a thousand-hour salt water shower. The National Institutes of Standards and Technology, the Department of Defense, and the Smithsonian Institution concluded that the tests met their standards.

The Park Service also dismissed concerns from opponents that trash would accumulate; the largest concern seems to be that the designers did not pay enough attention to the effects of bird poop.

Viewsheds strike again

However sturdy, the tapestries infringe on the Maryland and Independence Avenue rights-of-way, the NCPC staff report argues, and diminish the significance of the surrounding buildings in making an urban space.


A model shot of sightlines through the 2013 version.

The report finds that the tapestries and columns change the view towards the Capitol significantly, specifically narrowing it from the full 160-foot right-of-way to a 95-foot gap. The Gehry team argues that the rules permit artworks like the tapestries to occupy the right-of-way, but not a 50' gap at the center called the cartway. The designers say that the tapestries frame the view of the Capitol Dome, bringing more attention to it.

NCPC staff agree in principle, but say the 10' diameter, 80' tall columns and semi-opaque screens impact the view enough to violate this rule. Moreover, they say this approach contradicts L'Enfant's vision for wide-open monumental avenues.


A comparison of setbacks and the outboard column.

Similarly, the NCPC report found that one column along Independence Avenue extends past a 50-foot setback line matching the adjacent Wilbur Wright (FAA) and Wilbur Cohen (SSA) buildings. The design team argues that since setbacks on Independence Avenue range from 24' to 133', NCPC's choice to use directly adjacent buildings is arbitrary.


Streetwalls along Independence and Constitution.

Finally, the report finds that the way the tapestries create a semi-transparent precinct within the existing building fabric overshadows the existing buildings, particularly the LBJ Department of Education building. The bottom third of the tapestries would be almost solid, the middle section would be around half solid, and the top, around 20%. The report deems this level of density to be too high to respect the architecture of the building behind it.


Rendering from Reservation 113, showing the impact of the tapestries.

I understand the concerns of the NCPC staff. The L'Enfant Plan is a landmark that deserves respect. However, compared to the rigor of the technical analysis, the justifications for the principles are a little thin.

Unoccupiable columns are not buildings. Semi-transparent screens are not simply walls. The reciprocal views aren't ruined on Maryland Avenue. Screening a background isn't the same as blacking it out. Using the unremarkable, objectlike Wilbur Wright Building to establish a 50' setback needs more justification than what's in the report, particularly since NCPC violated its own height rules to approve the MLK memorial.

Conceptually, treating the 160-foot corridor as the total viewshed turns it into a beautiful abstraction unmoored from the experience of people actually there. It defers too much to the beautiful emptiness that's great for looking at but not so good for daily life.

There's already a stately, monumental avenue across the Mall. The Eisenhower Memorial offers a future for Maryland Avenue that preserves the key view while putting pedestrians first.


The LBJ Promenade, showing potential uses.

The memorial's most underappreciated aspect is the proposed LBJ Promenade, a street-sized walkway framed by the Education building and the tapestries. Meant to make more of pedestrian connection than is currently there, that kind of dense space is what a live-work Southwest needs. The NCPC may still find fault with the position of the tapestries, but I'd be more persuaded by their reasoning if they emphasized the tidiness and monumental emptiness less for this site.

The Eisenhower Memorial still has a long way to go before a shovel hits the ground. The agencies with power to approve or halt the memorial have very different opinions. The Commission of Fine Arts likes how the tapestries frame the view to the Capitol, but a few members question their ability to enclose the space. A Congressional committee has proposed stripping funding from the memorial for the year, but that might change if NCPC approves the design. There is a lot of uncertainty at this time.

At the same time, the team has met many of the objections from the Eisenhower grandchildren. The technical evaluations of the memorial have been promising. The doubt in my mind has been eroding. It's too early to count the memorial out.


A tapestry, the east path, and the presidential tableau.

Public Spaces


Eisenhower Memorial will be a nice park. Is that enough?

If you like the FDR and MLK Memorials then you'll probably like the Eisenhower Memorial. The latest designs follow the now-familiar model for new federal memorials, with an informal stone centerpiece amid a pleasant park.


Eisenhower Memorial site plan. All images from NCPC.

Earlier this month, the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) released the latest Eisenhower plans, in preparation for a September 12 review meeting.

The proposed design will re-conceive the mess of turn lanes and parking lots where Maryland Avenue SW meets Independence Avenue as a lovely city square. From that perspective, the design is a great victory for DC.

Since the buildings around the memorial are generally uninteresting and devoid of activity, architect Frank Gehry has included several elements that will make the square function as a better and more interesting urban room.


Tapestries form the border of an urban room (left), while an amenity-filled promenade helps draw people to the site (right).

Tall tapestries, covered with graphics, will surround and help frame the square, and will hide the eyesore buildings behind. Along the back edge, an activity-filled promenade will add an element of mixed-use, helping to draw more people. The promenade will include a sidewalk cafe, an art exhibition area, and a visitor center.

The memorial itself, at the center of the new square, will consist of stone blocks and metal statues arranged in a casual, informal plan. Like the FDR Memorial, it will be more introspective than monumental.


Central memorial.

The informal stone concept used at FDR and MLK has become popular because it works. Just about everyone likes it, and it doesn't offend anybody. The same will likely be true for Eisenhower.

But I do wonder how many more similar memorials we can build before the idea becomes a cliche. Ironically, a classical alternative would be more daring.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Architecture


Beware the starchitects, beware repetition

DC resident Jeff Speck wrote Suburban Nation, the best-selling book about city planning since Jane Jacobs. Greater Greater Washington is pleased to present 3 weekly excerpts from his new book, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time.

We've come a long way since the seventies, when every city endeavored to build its own version of Boston's fortress-like City Hall, a structure that only architects love (yes, I love it). This style of architecture was called brutalism, supposedly after Le Corbusier's beton brutrough concretebut the name stuck for other reasons.


Photo by See-ming Lee 李思明 SML on Flickr.

It was characterized by walls so abrasive they could rip your arm open. Happily, this technique is no longer in vogue, but many architects, especially the starchitects, still build blank walls where they least belong.

My old professor, the Spaniard Rafael Moneo, is probably the leading blank wall composer, a veritable Copland of Concrete. In his studios, like all of my architecture-school studios, nobody ever talked about how buildings need to give life to the sidewalk.

We did discuss such things as a faade's thickness and depth"sickness and death," in Moneo's formidable accentbut these were architectonic qualities, not practical ones. Most architecture schools still promote an intellectual and artistic sensibility that has little patience for such mundane questions as whether a building will sustain pedestrian activity.

This issue was the subject of a now famous exchange that took place at the 2009 Aspen Ideas Festival between Frank Gehry and a prominent audience member, Fred Kent. Kent, who runs the Project for Public Spaces, pointedly asked Gehry why so many "iconic" buildings by star architects fail to give life to the streets and sidewalks around them. Gehry, who was once quoted as saying "I don't do context," claimed to be above this criticism, but Kent didn't buy it. I wasn't there, so we'll let The Atlantic's James Fallows tell the rest:

But the questioner asked one more time, and Gehry did something I found simply incredible and unforgettable. "You are a pompous man," he saidand waved his hand in a dismissive gesture, much as Louis XIV might have used to wave away some offending underling. He was unmistakably shooing or waving the questioner away from the microphone, as an inferioragain, in a gesture hardly ever seen in post-feudal times.
Gehry was clearly having a bad day, but his imperiousness is worth recounting as a metaphor for some of his worknot all, but some. Kent was no doubt recalling his son Ethan's visit to Gehry's masterpiece, the Guggenheim Bilbao, an experience he describes in the Project for Public Spaces website's "Hall of Shame." After failing to find the front door and taking note of the treeless, depopulated plaza, Ethan observed a mugging, something he later learned was common there. He adds, "In the span of 10 minutes that we spent around the museum, I witnessed the first mugging of my lifeand I've lived my entire life in New York City."

Robberies are no longer very common in New York, but the same goes for Bilbaoexcept for certain problem places. That one of these places enfronts the Guggenheim is partly Gehry's fault, the outcome of a landscape (more of a landscrape) conceived as a tabula rasa to show off the building to its best effect. Gehry is actually perfectly capable of contributing to attractive, engaging landscapesas he has done in Chicago's Millennium Parkbut he rarely does so with his buildings, most of which do not reward proximity. His Disney Hall, in Los Angeles, has about 1500 feet of perimeter, perhaps 1000 feet of which is blank wall of the most slippery sort.

But it's a concert hall, you say. . . it needs to have blank walls. Well, take a stroll around the Paris Opera, or even Boston's Symphony Hall, and let's talk again. These older buildings' facades are awash in engaging detail, so that even their blank walls don't feel blank. Walking next to them is a pleasure.

This discussion reminds me of a wonderful set of drawings by Leon Krier, in which he shows two buildings side by side from three different distances. From far away, we can see that one is a classical palace, the other a modernist glass cube. The palace has its base, middle, and top, while the glass cube is articulated with the horizontal and vertical lines of its large, reflective windows.

As we get closer, the palace reveals its doors, windows, and cornice, while the glass cube remains the same as before: horizontal and vertical lines. Zooming in to just a few paces away, we now observe the palace's decorative string course, window frames, and the rafter-tails supporting the eaves. Our view of the glass cube is unchanged and mute. We have walked a great distance to its front door but received no reward.

Krier presents these drawings as a powerful argument against modernism. But this is not merely a question of style. Any architectural styleexcept minimalism, I supposeis capable of providing those medium- and small-scale details that engage people as they approach and walk by.

The high-tech Pompidou Center, by celebrating its mechanical systems on its exterior, gives life to one of the most successful public spaces in Paris. What matters is not whether the details were crafted by a stone carver or a cold extruder, but whether they exist at all. Too many contemporary architects fail to understand this point, or understand it but don't care.

But a preponderance of human-scaled detail is still not enough if a streetscape lacks variety. However delicate and lovely a building faade, there is little to entice a walker past 500 feet of it. As Jane Jacobs noted, "Almost nobody travels willingly from sameness to sameness and repetition to repetition, even if the physical effort required is trivial."

Getting the scale of the detail right is only half the battle; what matters even more is getting the scale of the buildings right, so that each block contains as many different buildings as reasonably possible. Only in this way will the pedestrian be rewarded with the continuously unfolding panorama that comes from many hands at work.

This fact seems to be lost on the vast majority of architects, especially the big names, whose unspoken goal is to claim as much territory as possible for their trademarked signature, even if it means a numbingly repetitive streetscape. It is rarely taught in architecture schools, where there persists a deep misunderstanding of the difference between city planning and architecture, such that most urban design projects are seen as an opportunity to create a single humongous building. Design superstars like Rem Koolhaas, in their giddy celebration of "bigness," have adopted this confusion as doctrine.

To be fair, egotism and the desire for celebrity are only partly responsible for this orientation. It also comes from an insistence on intellectual honesty. Just as a building supposedly bears the obligation to be "of its time," it must also be "of its author." For the designer of a large structure to pretend to be many different designers is to falsify the historical record, especially since the modern myth of the genius architect insists that every designer's personal style is as unique as his fingerprint.

I still remember (how could I not) the critic at my architectural-school thesis final review who said, "I don't understand: your two buildings seem to have been designed by two different architects." My fantasy-world response, twenty years after the fact: "Why, thank you, sir."

Speck's book came out on November 13. You can order it on Amazon. For more from the book, see also our first and second excerpts. Speck will also be appearing at Politics & Prose this Saturday.

Architecture


Gehry Eisenhower memorial actually not daring enough?

Earlier this morning I contributed to a group post about the proposed Eisenhower Memorial, designed by starchitect Frank Gehry. While the group piece included many of my thoughts, I wanted to expand upon my personal reactions.


Image from Gehry Partners.

My overall impression of these initial images is that Gehry's design is thoughtful and inoffensive, but also underwhelming. Gehry has always been a better sculptor than architect, and is usually at his best when designing things that aren't traditional buildings, such as the Pritzker Pavilion.

Memorials, unlike traditional work/live buildings, are great opportunities for sculpture, so disappointed to see one of the world's great sculptors essentially punt.

The semi-circular inner plaza element is evocative of the FDR and MLK memorials, with its informal placement of decorated stone blocks. The look is attractive enough, but it's beginning to be a cliche. In my opinion it's the least ambitious part of the memorial, ironic considering it's the focal point.

In any event, the restrained central plaza should present an interesting dichotomy to the much more formal and monumentally-sized outer elements, the cylinders and metal tapestries.

The cylinders do more than any other element to make the memorial visually striking from a distance, and so are indispensable to the design, but at 80 feet tall and lacking any details whatsoever they will be too bare up close. Like the lackluster inner plaza, the cylinders are a missed opportunity for sculpture. If I were the designer I might go classical, but Gehry could propose something like bareiss columns and that would be just as good.

I also have mixed feelings about the other major element of the memorial, the metal tapestries. I appreciate and agree with the desire to cover up the Education Department building, but to do so with oversized picture panels is a touch contrived, a little too easy. It's like we've taken the tarps that are supposed to hide the parking garages at Nationals Ballpark and turned them into a monument. It's a difficult problem, but is that *really* the best we can do?

Gehry deserves credit for restraining himself from retreading his own familiar shtick. Another mass of crumbled titanium would have been inappropriate; it would be memorial to Gehry himself more so than Eisenhower. But at the same time I have to say I'm disappointed that there's nothing daring in this proposal. Such rare opportunities for artful civic sculpture shouldn't be ignored. This memorial could be worse, but it could also be a lot better.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Architecture


Gehry Eisenhower memorial delivers old forms in a new style

Frank Gehry's proposed design for the Dwight Eisenhower memorial was released by the National Memorial Commission yesterday. The proposal closes part of Maryland Avenue to create a monumental civic square between the Air and Space Museum and the Department of Education.


Images from Gehry Partners. Click for more photos.
Update: DCist has even more and larger photos.

For the design Gehry departed from his signature crumpled titanium look in favor of a collection of cylinders and walls, a move that is at the same time both conservative and innovative. It's conservative because those components are more traditional than his usual futuristic look, but innovative because Gehry has actually produced a new concept rather than another carbon copy of Bilbao.

The design creates a central plaza of stone blocks in a circle, enclosing a single tree and a small pool of water. On the faces of the ring of stones, images cast in low relief and quotations in large type speak history to those inside. East and west of the central courtyard, groves of trees canopy informal plazas. At first blush, these spaces feel intimate and beautiful.

Rising from just beyond the trees, large stainless steel tapestries supported by limestone columns enclose the space on the north and south sides. These will display huge pictures as part of the memorial on a woven scrim. They also serve a second purpose: to cover up the Education Department building, a monotonous piece of bureaucratic architecture that would otherwise visually dominate the space.

The street condition is undefined, bounded by the tapestries except at three prominent areas. The axis of Maryland Avenue cuts through the memorial, with the stone ring in the center. Building the memorial without disrupting the viewshed of the Capitol or traffic flow were seen as the two big problems. The Memorial Commission selected a design that sidesteps the issue of sightlines by removing one of eight columns and two sections of the screens. This way, the design frames the primary view of the Capitol with the same structures that fit it into the grid.

The panel rejected other alternatives that maintained a vehicular Maryland Avenue road through the monument. Instead, they chose to create a pedestrian plaza. The site, adjacent to the Mall, tries to moves the monumental program off of the Mall and drawing visitors, most of whom tour on foot.

Gehry has tamed his own style for this project, although the ring of stones exemplifies the blockish forms he had been experimenting with since the opening of Walt Disney Hall. Mercifully, Gehry has also eschewed the dismal expressionism of a younger generation of memorial designers. The design team did not try to assign tremendous meaning to every little detail. Instead, it is a building that can be judged for its power and for its beauty, although people will disagree.

Last year, the Post's architecture critic Philip Kennicott called for a new "language" of memorialization. Gehry partly delivers, but the project also contains overt references to the neoclassical precedents around DC. The memorial succeeds because of them, even as it inverts some and adds a few new details.

The large screens are the most novel idea of the entire memorial. They expand the sculptural program to a gigantic scale, reaching eighty feet into the air. During the daytime, the might shade the interior space. At night the model shows them lit from the courtyard, more clearly revealing the content to Independence Avenue.

Gehry revisits some older ideas as well. Although the Mall hasn't seen memorial trees in a century, they once formed a good part of the commemorative landscape and this monument contains one as the centerpiece of the ring of rectangular monoliths.

On the faces of each block, reliefs will relate significant moments of in the career of the soldier and president. Relief sculpture has been less popular as part of DC's monumental landscape. In no other memorial is it the primary form of representation. The models show large images extending to the edges of each block, almost like a digital photograph or television image. We do not want to be trapped by our technology, but the gesture toward on-screen representation does seem fresh. However, fifteen years later, the once-exotic etchings on the Korean War Veterans Memorial feel thin and inexpressive. Now, the media are moving into 3-D for its effect, so this design follows the trend back into tradition.

If the sculptural style looks promising, the columns that support the screens already disappoint. In the model, they appear too much like the dowels used to represent the shafts, and not enough like real pieces of architecture. They are mute and unattractive. Compare them to the colonnade on the Lincoln Memorial, where Henry Bacon emphasized permanence and with the beauty and connotations of the Doric order. At the Eisenhower Memorial, little can be said about the columns because the columns say so little. Gehry may not have made a grand colonnade, but he did design a great rotunda.

The ensemble at the heart of the memorial evokes a humble country lifeMayberry, even. Eisenhower was never a fortunate son; rural life bookended his life and formed his character. Born in Abiline, Kansas, and retiring to a farm in Gettysburg, the great deeds and great words that surround the bucolic centerpiece suggest a practical man thrust into history. This particular relationship is the most powerful image presented by the monument. On another level, planting a landscape at the center of a circular memorial references Jefferson. Even as monuments crumble, the ensemble seems to suggest, the self-sustaining farm life continues Eisenhower's legacy.

The other images will come later, so we do not yet know the style or the artist, or even the content. How these artworks will convey complex achievements like the occupation of Europe or interstate highway system remains uncertain. The Civil Rights Movement, which grew more powerful and accomplished key victories had relatively little to to with Ike. Again, the metaphor of simplicity surrounded by greatness will guide visitors to examine what made the man rather than what the man made.

Before the collectible shovels even hit the ground, this design will come under review by the Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission. More importantly, translating the model-driven architecture of Frank Gehry into physical designs will require substantial thought, such as how to humanize those columns. The sculptural program will be contentious as well. Recognizing a man who was a baseball coach, an officer, a college president, General Of the Armies, and President of the United States will be challenging. Gehry and the many agencies that oversee the mall must cooperate to produce the most affecting and communicative architecture possible.

The memorial is trying to be taken seriously. Gehry has said that his own military experience in 1955-1957 motivated him to work on this particular project, and that he holds particular respect for the man who was Commander-in-Chief during that time. Some people will never like Frank Gehry. His cavalier style can feel like an insult to care and effort. Although this is just a cultivated image, this memorial must transcend his style to be recognized as a monument to Eisenhower. Based on what was displayed yesterday, with a little hard work, the monument could be one of Washington's best.

Preservation


Reinvent memorialization, maybe; reinvent plazas, no

Today, Post architecture critic Philip Kennicott weighs in on the choice of Frank Gehry to design the Eisenhower Memorial. The commission document calls for a "plaza-type" memorial, including a canopy and a small building. It also asks Gehry to design "a new vision of memorialization: a new paradigm for memorials."


We could do a lot worse than this. Photo by kimberlyfaye.

Is that really what we need? Certainly, memorials needn't all resemble earlier ones. Once, we built obelisks, like the Washington Monument. Later, memorials meant Greek-style temples and rotundas like the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials or the small but elegant DC War Memorial. The Vietnam Wall and the FDR Memorial each defined their own paradigms for memorials. But they also fit into their environments in a pleasing way. Little that Gehry has ever built does so, and if his idea of defining the "language ... for a 21st century memorial" involves throwing out everything nice about the language of prior centuries for something jarring and unpleasant, it'd be best that we avoid speaking his language.

Kennicott agrees, warning against Gehry emulating a 2008 London design resembling "a jumble of wood and glass panels seemingly hung from a huge pair of parallel bars" or interactive devices that "overwhelm the place." But he also tries to steer Gehry away from emulating the Navy Memorial, which he calls "not very interesting":

It has a water element, some nice paving, a few benches and a little statue, "The Lone Sailor," to suggest the human element of military service. The memorial's best feature is its humility and its benign incorporation into the cityscape. Any number of second-tier landscape architecture firms could provide more of the same.
Can a memorial "reinvent" while also remaining humble and benign? Gehry is probably not the man to do that, though Kennicott feels he "deserves the freedom to try." However, there's a very fine line between interesting and garish. If our architecture critics keep criticizing good-but-not-spectacular memorials like the Navy memorial as "not very interesting," architects won't even try for humble.

Many architecture schools indoctrinate young architects with the notion that their designs must be bold, stand out, challenge orthodoxy, and make a statement, when in truth most buildings really just need to look nice, function well, relate to people on the human scale, and integrate well into the fabric of the city. But many architecture critics egg them on, pushing the warping of the craft of architecture into a modern art contest. Former New York Times critic Ada Louise Huxtable did it, Boston Globe critic Yvonne Abraham does it, and it sure sounds like Kennicott is doing it, even if in a small way.

The Eisenhower Memorial should function as a plaza and as a memorial. It might be time to reinvent the language of memorials, but we don't need to reinvent plazas. Memorials have changed over the centuries, becoming different but not better or worse, while plazas have generally become worse. The classic European squares with fountains still work best, while plazas are modernism's greatest failure among many.

If Gehry comes up with a visionary new vision for the Eisenhower Memorial that's a lousy plaza, it'll be a failure. No matter how much architecture critics appreciate its creativity, people have to appreciate sitting there and eating lunch as well. And interesting or not, the Navy Memorial succeeds admirably at the one goal while doing just fine at the other. Something like that from a "second-tier landscape architecture firm" could well do better for the city than what Gehry might devise. He deserves the freedom to try, but the citizens, NCPC, and CFA, which Kennicott calls the "District's design watchdogs," deserve the freedom to tell him to clip his boldness and make a good plaza.

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