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Fate Uncertain: Gehry’s Design for Ike

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

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Five years and tens of millions of dollars into the process, a controversial memorial to President Dwight D. Eisenhower may be headed back to the drawing board, sunk by an "unworkable" design and growing costs.

Federal legislation introduced March 13 and supported by the Eisenhower family would scrap an elaborate design for the memorial by award-winning architect Frank Gehry, withhold $100 million slated for the project, and re-start the design process from scratch.

Eisenhower Memorial Design
Design by Frank Gehry /

In 2008, architect Frank Gehry won a design competition for the Dwight D. Eisenhower National Memorial in Washington D.C. Critics of Gehry's concept include members of the Eisenhower family.

"The Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Completion Act" is the latest volley in a six-year controversy over the oft-criticized design.

Gehry’s design includes 80-foot-tall transparent stainless steel tapestries that frame the site, three statues of Eisenhower, and green space situated at the base of Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

Critics, who include the Eisenhower family, say the design is far too elaborate and expensive.

The Reauthorization Bill

In 1999, Congress approved the Dwight D. Eisenhower National Memorial with the passage of Public Law 106-79, signed into law by President Clinton.

The Eisenhower Memorial Commission was charged with building an official memorial honoring Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II and the 34th President of the United States.

The Memorial Commission’s congressional authority is set to expire May 5. The looming deadline spurred Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) to propose a reauthorization bill that would scrap Gehry’s design, withhold $100 million in funding for the project, and re-start the competition and selection process from scratch.

'Get this Project Right'

“The Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial will honor one of the greatest leaders in our nation’s history and serve as a lasting tribute to his legacy,” said Bishop, who chairs the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation.

“It is important that we get this project right—and presently, there are far too many outstanding concerns, including the controversial design and rising costs.”

Eisenhower Memorial Design

The presidential memorial would be the first with on-site wireless technology to provide interactive enhancement for the physical memorial and to present electronic interpretation, planners say.

Congress has appropriated more than $60 million to the commission for the project thus far, according to Bishop. The total cost of the project has reached $142 million, according to various reports.

If passed, the bill would also provide for a three-year extension of the site designation approved by Congress in 2006.

The reauthorization bill will require passage by the House, Senate and the President’s signature.

Eisenhower Family Support

Perhaps the proposed bill’s most powerful supporters include the Eisenhower family. Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of President Eisenhower, testified this month before the subcommittee about the family’s concerns over the current design.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

A five-star general, Dwight D. Eisenhower served as President of the United States from 1953 to 1961. His family called for a simpler memorial.

“Significant stakeholders believe the Gehry design is regretfully unworkable,” Eisenhower testified. “It’s time to go back to the drawing board with an open competition for a new design.”

She also quoted a letter from her father, John D. Eisenhower: “[T]axpayers will be better served by green open space with a simple memorial.”

The family members have previously voiced concern over the memorial design. Letters summarizing the family’s position are posted here.

Durability in Question

Other witnesses, including the National Civic Art Society, offered similar testimony at the hearing. The society has vehemently opposed Gehry’s design from the outset.

National Civic Art Society
U.S. Commission of Fine Arts /

Critics have questioned the memorial's cost and construction materials.

Society president Justin Shubow questioned the durability of the tapestry materials planned for the monument and said the government's materials experts had raised similar concerns.

Committee Supports Design

However, the design drew support from Brig. Gen. Carl W. Reddel, (Ret. USAF), executive director of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission. Reddel noted that the architect had adjusted his design in response to the criticism and that more changes would follow, according to reports.

Reddel also said that every major memorial in Washington was controversial in the beginning and that excessive political involvement could be prove counter-productive, reports relate.

Selection Process

According to the Memorial Commission website, Gehry’s original design was selected from 44 qualified design firms in 2008, under the guidelines of the General Services Administration's Design Excellence Program.

“Evaluation factors included previous work, ability to work within the constraints of an urban site, interviews, and responses to the memorial’s pre-design program,” according to the commission.

“An independent panel of reviewers, including Commissioner David Eisenhower, reviewed the presentations by the final four designers and recommended Frank Gehry,” the commission said.  

AIA Argues for Process

The American Institute of Architects has voiced opposition to Bishop’s reauthorization bill but has stopped short of supporting or opposing Gehry’s design. The group takes issue with the bill's attempt to overturn the process that chose the design.

“Representative Bishop’s legislation allows Congress to exercise governmental authority in a wholly arbitrary manner that negates the stated selection process,” said AIA Chief Executive Officer Robert Ivy, FAIA.

“It is nothing more than an effort to intimidate the innovative thinking for which our profession is recognized at home and around the globe," Ivy said. "We intend to vigorously oppose it.”

Changing Rules 'in the Middle of the Game'

After the hearing on the reauthorization bill, the AIA issued yet another statement.

“The statement by Rep. Bishop that the AIA opposes political interference in the design process in order to protect large architectural firms shows a basic misunderstanding of our profession,” Ivy said.

“More than 76 percent of AIA member firms make less than a million dollars a year. More than 97 percent of U.S. architecture firms have 50 or fewer employees. We are a professional association, in large part, comprised of small businesses.

“What’s more, many small firms perform public work for government agencies at all levels. They take part in public competitions and invest time and money to prepare proposals, all the while taking the risk that they might not win.

“If Congress exerts the right to change the rules and reject designs in the middle of the game, these small firms will not take part in the federal procurement process. Congress would effectively be legislating small architectural businesses out of federal contracts, limiting competition in the process.”


Tagged categories: American Institute of Architects (AIA); Architects; Color + Design; Contests; Design; Frank Gehry; Government contracts; Historic Structures; Monuments

Comment from John Fauth, (3/26/2013, 8:21 AM)

Governmental efficiency... two words that do not belong in the same sentence.

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