Practical questions of permanence and cost have a common cause in a selection process that gave us no alternatives to a controversial design. The Eisenhower Memorial Commission selected its designer before he developed a proposal, from a short list of established architects. As a result, Gehry never faced the possibility that the commission could go to someone else if his proposal turned out to be unbuildable or too expensive. He was free to follow his vision wherever it might lead.
The flaws in this selection process are now obvious, and we should revisit it. We might look to the public design competitions that are customary for national memorials and that produced four of the last five memorials on the National Mall, and all three of those to Sept. 11. Public competitions are open to everyone; judges choose anonymously submitted designs, not designers. Competitions also produce viable alternatives to unworkable winning designs and can enforce cost and durability requirements through selection criteria.
Most importantly, a public competition to redesign this memorial would establish a clear path to the consensus that has eluded it so far. Without that consensus, we cannot expect to obtain a unifying outcome, as the man we are honoring well understood. Eisenhower’s military and political achievements were also coordinated group efforts. Nothing less could produce the Allied victory in Europe or the Interstate Highway System. Similarly, nothing less than an inclusive design process can likely produce a broadly acceptable Eisenhower Memorial. Beyond any particular style or design, that is our common goal, and to meet it we should make a fresh start.
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.