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Frank Gehry’s Eisenhower Memorial in D.C. Is a Huge Anticlimax

Photo: Susan Walsh/AP/Shutterstock

At a time when titans are posthumously disgraced, statues are dismounted, college dorms are renamed, and heroes are generally suspect, Ike has at long last gotten his monument in Washington, D.C. After watching from a distance as a war of attrition over the design ground on for two decades, I finally saw the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial at the end of a short, bright winter day, as the limestone columns glowed in the sunset and the illumination switched on. The plaza was quiet, the evening imbued with all the serene dignity that the nation’s capital can muster — and the shrine itself was a disappointing squeak.

The struggle focused on how Eisenhower would be remembered — as the barefoot boy from Abilene, Kansas? The military genius sorrowfully dispatching his men to die in the surf at Normandy? The sly politician disguised as a plodder? The great modernizer of his nation’s roads? When Gehry Partners won the competition to design the memorial in 2009, the choice of architect spawned a separate debate. The creator of landmarks that take the form of flames, waves, fish, and twisting bodies, Frank Gehry seemed like the anti-Ike: self-aggrandizing, flamboyant, intransigent, and excessive. Like most Washington controversies, this one divided into ideologically inflected camps. Conservatives fulminated that Gehry was usurping Eisenhower as the focus of worship and distorting the legacy he was supposed to be celebrating. Gehry’s supporters saw him as battling the forces of retro Philistinism.

These squabbles seemed narrow and parochial, but by the time construction was nearing completion in the summer of 2020, the whole nation was asking wide-screen versions of similar questions. What to remember, whom to forget, and when to honor victims rather than heroes — these were topics that caused street fights and armed protests, not just rhetorical brawls. The memorial’s opening, in September 2020, came at a moment when Washington’s museums were briefly open between waves of COVID-19, and the presidential election season consumed the nation’s attention. A few months later, the paved walkway that crosses the plaza at a slant on axis with the Capitol was pointing toward a scene of mayhem instigated by another Republican president who was Eisenhower’s opposite in every way.

Ambiguity is difficult to translate to a monument. That may be why, after all that harrumphing debate, the Eisenhower Memorial is such a wan anticlimax. Gehry’s design needed to satisfy a touchy family, a fickle political establishment, and his own artistic integrity. The result of all that diplomacy is a work of civic architecture that fails to quicken the patriotic pulse or add much to the landscape of memory in downtown D.C. The problems begin with the site, which isn’t on the Mall, but a block away on Maryland Avenue, on a leftover parcel hemmed in by bureaucracies. Gehry divided the space up the way you might slice a half-pizza, its walkways converging on a narrative zone containing a pair of dioramas from the great man’s life. In one, a bronze Eisenhower stands, trim and straight-backed with his fellow soldiers on a limestone plinth, the giants of D-Day. In the other, we see the president as a civilian among civilians, engaging in sober, deliberate, and collaborative leadership. Only in a third scene, set apart from the others, is he alone, not as a grand old man swathed in the solitude of power but as the teenaged dreamer, hugging his knees, the cuffs of his dungarees bunching above worn boots.

All this stone and statuary would have stirred up far fewer passions if not for the central innovation: the see-through woven-steel tapestry, depicting the cliffs at Normandy, that runs the entire length of the site. From the beginning, this was the centerpiece of the design, tricky to visualize, tough to sell, and tougher to realize. Washington has not developed many new ways to honor great individuals, in part because the concept of individual greatness has become fragile. We struggle to reconcile achievements and foibles, and the calculus of consequences has become more complex. Engraved citations, semi-realistic statues, dioramas of significant moments, big stone (or stone-clad) blocks that have been carefully placed and artfully roughened — these are the ingredients of official memory. With the tapestry, Gehry hoped to add a new kind of structure and a new form of representation, somewhere between two and three dimensions. Critics compared the proposal to a fence or a billboard, but that’s unfair. Finished, it’s more of a theatrical scrim or an insubstantial wall. At night, it looks like negative graffiti, floating luminously in midair. During the day, it’s literally, and deliberately, self-effacing.

As an architectural tool, the freestanding tapestry derives from the perforated metal screen, popular with architects who want to wrap bulky buildings in ornamental façades to lighten them; the most visible local kinship is with David Adjaye’s National Museum of African American Heritage and Culture. The artist Tomas Osinski, Gehry’s regular collaborator and the man who figured out how to translate his fish into structure, solved the immense fabrication challenges. The result might have been a way to depict the events of Eisenhower’s era — tapestry, like stained glass, has merged narrative and decoration for over 1,000 years. Instead, to simplify the project and break the iconographic logjams with the Eisenhower family, Gehry opted to use his own sketch of Pointe du Hoc. No gun emplacements, no dead GIs, no razor wire or air support — just nature’s impassive, spectacular calm.

Even so, the drawing is busy and clotted, in Gehry’s liquid, frenetic style, developed with one eye on Bernini and another on Rauschenberg. In books and exhibitions, his sketches express the emotional quality that his firm goes to enormous lengths to preserve on the way from brain wave to landmark. The early, manic squiggles that Gehry tossed off for Walt Disney Hall tell us nothing about how the building works or its presence in the Los Angeles landscape, but they embody his desire for architecture with musical qualities, a building that would shimmy and swing. Blow those scrawls up to monumental scale, though, and what you get is a monumental scrawl — tangled, diffuse, and difficult to read.

The landscape that Gehry drew for the tapestry is not a first thought but a final draft, not an idea for his staff to  interpret but his reading of a historical landscape. His decision to show nature at peace, devoid of human interference, strikes me as an odd clean-slate fantasy from a man whose life has been devoted to transforming the land. It certainly doesn’t play to his immeasurable strengths. If Gehry has something incisive to say about Pointe du Hoc, or the beaches below, or their impact on Eisenhower’s political maturity, the drawing reveals none of that.

Which hardly matters, in a way, since it’s usually impossible to make out. The tapestry is the opposite of an icon. Instead of an obelisk, say, that can be read at a distance and always looks the same, it’s almost self-erasing, even at close quarters. Look at it head-on, and it’s a blurry veil over the Department of Education. Stand at its foot and look up, and the lines take shape against the sky, revealing abstract segments. It’s only at night, when the lighting by L’Observatoire International rakes across the mesh, that you can step back and take in the panoramic sweep. The drawing’s length invokes Japanese scroll painting, except that in place of peaks, clouds, cataracts, or drama, Gehry gives us plateau above and sea below, a composition as static and horizontal as, say, the Department of Education building.

One of Gehry’s great contributions to architecture has been the urge to experiment with texture and illusion, and I hope the technique of weaving a large-scale image out of wire continues to evolve. But the artistic vision will have to develop alongside the technical fluency; for now, the tapestry is a medium in search of a message.

The Gehry Eisenhower Memorial in D.C. Is a Huge Anticlimax