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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.
There are now even stronger reasons for worry. Through a FOIA investigation, our organization discovered that the National Park Service estimates that six tapestry panels will need to be replaced every five years. In addition, about 750 support cables will need to be replaced every 25 years, and a third of those cables are 444 feet long each. The artwork and very structural armature will crumble if not periodically replaced — and at extraordinary expense.
Topping it all off, President Barack Obama recently weighed in by appointing Bruce Cole, a scathing opponent of the design, to the Eisenhower Commission.
Critics and pundits have been nearly unanimous in their opposition to the design. And virtually none of Gehry’s friends have come to his defense. They have left him flapping in the breeze.
The Eisenhower Commission’s response? Its executive director is pretending that everything is on track. And in any event, he reminds us that it took 44 years to build the FDR Memorial. That is not a comforting thought. Consider also that Gehry turns 85 this month, whereas the commission’s chairman, Rocco Siciliano, is nearly 92 years old.
Gehry has been more realistic. The “weary” architect told the Financial Times, “I don’t know whether it’s going to get built.”
It is unconscionable for commissioners to keep pushing for a design that will never be constructed — while wasting millions of taxpayer dollars.
The good news is that they still have tens of millions of dollars in the bank. We are confident that a new, streamlined competition can be held and a modest — and worthy — memorial be completed without the need to appropriate a single dollar more. And all of this can be accomplished in a lot less than 44 years.
Justin Shubow is president of the National Civic Art Society.