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The Eisenhower Memorial is dead. Not the memorial itself, but the wildly unpopular design by Frank Gehry.
The decisive blow is Congress’ 2014 budget, which denied the $49 million in construction funds requested by the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, the body charged with building the memorial. Instead, Congress allotted $1 million for operations, thereby halving the commission’s previous annual budget. Congress also reinstated the requirement that the commission possess 100 percent of construction funding before it can break ground.
This sets an impossibly high bar. The commission’s 2014 budget request estimated that it would need an additional $25 million in construction funds for 2015. It is inconceivable that a Congress unwilling to devote a single dollar toward construction will appropriate the combined $74 million. Furthermore, the commission said it needs to raise $35 million in private funds — yet there is every indication that such fundraising has been an utter failure.
Congress also called for the commission to work with the Eisenhower family, which has vehemently opposed the design for being grandiose and extravagant. Since they object to Gehry’s fundamental concept (the gargantuan columns and steel “tapestries”), there can be no compromise. Congress’ message is clear: Gehry has got to go.
It is not just Congress that is refusing support. Every party that has a say has turned against the memorial. In November, the plan went before the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, one of two agencies that must approve the design. At that meeting, all seven commissioners critiqued the design.
Alex Krieger, a professor of urban design at Harvard, judged the plan according to the standards of a “traditional first-semester architecture exercise.” He emphatically said, “This would fail.” Krieger complained that each iteration of the design has made it worse. He accused the side tapestries, a major part of the design, of “flapping in the breeze” and asked Gehry to remove them. Other panelists seconded his remarks, including Chairman Rusty Powell, director of the National Gallery of Art.
Commissioner Teresita Fernández, a modern sculptor, said, “I have wanted to like this — and I don’t.” She pulled no punches regarding Gehry’s justification for the memorial’s enormous size: “I hate to say this, but Mr. Gehry, this is not a building. Just because you’re an architect and you make something big, it does not make a building.” Although the Fine Arts Commission previously approved the general concept, there has been turnover of members and that approval appears to be in jeopardy. The process is heading backward.
The other agency that must approve the design is the National Capital Planning Commission, which has not even given its preliminary approval. Indeed, in September, the Eisenhower Commission pulled out at the last second from the agency’s meeting because it recognized it was walking into a buzz saw: The planning commission’s executive director had officially recommended not approving the design. And at the same time, the agency’s materials experts had raised serious red flags about the durability of the experimental tapestries.