Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Still Waiting, the Eisenhower Memorial

Back at the end of March I saw an extraordinary hearing on C-SPAN 3 that alerted me to the controversy swirling around the Eisenhower Memorial proposed for the nation’s National Mall.  The hearing revealed a dispute between Eisenhower's descendants and the person many feel is America's greatest living architect.  It displayed the corrosive partisanship eating away at the country and how people who want to change the design also feel it necessary to destroy the designer's reputation.  It prompted me to write about how difficult it is to create a monument in this atmosphere, but it also drew me in to the amazing story of how the National Mall came to be and how everything is hard in that space. 

So, I gathered stories about the National Mall, its many changes and controversies and about the amazing return from the dead of Pierre L’Enfant whose design was largely discarded after he was fired by Washington himself, died and was buried uncelebrated in a friend’s pasture and 100 years later, brought back to the Capitol building, displayed in its rotunda and buried in Arlington Cemetery overlooking everything he had lost in life.  It had become politically expedient to create this reborn hero and no place but Washington, DC has the skills to make the dead come to life so convincingly. 

The proposed Eisenhower Memorial would sit on four acres just off the Mall in front of the Department of Education Building, not far from the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.  The original design’s story featured an inconspicuous “barefoot boy,” sitting on a bench watching the major accomplishments of his career unfold -- Boy, General and President.  The image comes from the lovely speech Eisenhower made in his hometown of Abilene, Kansas when he returned from Europe in 1947.

“…no man is really a man who has left out of himself all of the boy. I want to speak first of the dreams of a barefoot boy. Frequently they are to be a streetcar conductor; or he sees himself as the town policeman; above all he may reach the position of locomotive engineer, but always in his dreams is that day when finally he comes home, comes home to a welcome from his own home town … today that dream of forty-five years or more ago has been realized beyond the wildest stretches of my own imagination. I come here first to thank you, to say the proudest thing I can claim is that I am from Abilene.”


The scenes in the first version of the monument are taken from famous photographs of Eisenhower.  One is Eisenhower animatedly talking with members of the 101st Airborne Division on the evening of June 5, 1944, before they will parachute into France behind the German lines.  Another scene is from a Karsh photograph where Eisenhower stands next to a globe, his hand resting on it.  Behind these scenes and to the right and left of the property is a metal mesh on which you see the Kansas landscape of Eisenhower’s youth, the steel fabric forming an enclosure supported by large round columns.  

Karsh, Ottawa
Many things have happened since I watched that remarkable hearing last March.  First, the Eisenhower Memorial Commission tried to stick to its design, initially with the standard “full confidence” letter about architect Gehry, quickly followed by the conciliation letter offering a meeting with the Eisenhower family and Gehry and the release of a letter from Gehry in which he states his willingness to do what is necessary to make the Eisenhower family happy. 

Unfortunately, this is hard to do.  The family is led by Susan Eisenhower, the president’s granddaughter, a body puncher whose firm opinions and willingness to use charged language – she compares the wire mesh to the fences of a Nazi concentration camp.  She also hits the design in terms of the cold war, claiming that tapestry depictions of Mao and Stalin were de rigueur when her Grandfather was staring down those commies.  She compares them to billboards.  “My grandfather hated billboards."  She has the Commission and the Congress on their heels and also Gehry.  Susan’s brother, David, seemed a go-along, get-along guy as a member of the Eisenhower Commission until December, 2011, when he resigned.  He was the last Eisenhower to fall into Susan’s line. 
Susan Eisenhower
Other of Susan’s allies include two non-profit organizations, The National Civic Art Society in Washington, DC, whose mission is to be “in the vanguard of a traditional artist counterculture emerging as the indispensable alternative to a post-modern, elitist culture that has reduced its works of 'art' to a dependence on rarified discourse incomprehensible to ordinary people." The second organization is the National Monuments Foundation in Atlanta, an organization for whom all public art stopped when they put a figure of Nelson on top of the column in Trafalgar Square.  Like Susan, they appear intractable foes and are clearly aware that a good fight has a direct impact on the bottom of their 501 (c) (3) lines. 

Like all Washington today, this issue is completely polarized and politicized.  Defending the presentation of Eisenhower’s legacy is now the ground of the Republicans and the importance of free speech through artistic freedom has become the lot of the Democrats.  Neither side really likes what it has been handed, but that’s Washington.  An article in the Weekly Standard called “Do Right By Ike,” graces the websites of the Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute and the Hudson Foundation. “We’d like what Ike would have liked,” is the way the National Civic Art Society puts it. 

Justin Shubow
What is completely reprehensible and very visible to ordinary people is the attack on Gehry’s thinking and professional competence by The National Civic Art Society’s Chairman, Justin Shubow.  He portrays Gehry as a kind of architectural anarchist who has no respect for tradition or current day values and whose architecture is a disgrace. 

Gehry, like Susan Eisenhower, uses colorful and controversial language to make his point.  Shubow uses Gehry’s own words to savage him.  His NCAS website has a section called “Frank Gehry in His Own Words” in which he assembles pages of Gehry’s quotations and highlights parts of them.  “Get a load of this guy,” is what he seems to be saying.  You can’t trust an ego like his with the culture of this country nor with the property of the United States.” 

There is no doubt about Gehry’s ego – nor Shubow’s – but there is something in the NCAS argument that is mean-spirited and destructive, an extension of our politics to the arts and architecture.  Some of the quotations on Shubow’s website show Gehry at his best, beautifully simplifying the idea of creativity.

Frank Gehry
“When I start my [architecture] class I ask the students to write their signatures on pieces of paper and put them on a table. I have them look at them, and I point out, “They’re all different, aren’t they? That’s you, that’s you, that’s you, that’s you.” I say, “That’s what you have to find in architecture. You have to find your signature. When you find it, you’re the only expert on it. People can say they like it or don’t like it. They can argue about it, but it’s yours.”

In June of this year, the Eisenhower Monument Commission made a request for $60,000,000 to apply to the Gehry design.  They were turned down, even though a Commission member, Representative Mike Simpson of Idaho, who had supported the Gehry design, was the chair of the House Appropriations Sub-Committee that drafted the bill.  That is a bad signal.  Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Interior and the cabinet member responsible for the Mall, entered the fray afterward, saying he wanted to “look at the design.”  Clearly, nothing is going to happen for a while.

My thinking on what to do has evolved.  No matter how I reject the hard edge of Susan Eisenhower or the condescending meanness of Shubow, I’m with them on starting over.  I came to that point of view from two starting places.  One was Bill Clinton’s nomination speech of President Obama and the other was an OpEd from the British Newspaper “The Guardian” by Nicolaus Mills, a professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College, who writes frequently about America in that newspaper. 

I thought there is nothing harder to do than make something simple and no better a practitioner than Bill Clinton.  While watching that night, I put my admiration for his ability to simplify into the context of the Eisenhower Memorial.  I asked where the simplicity was in the Gehry design.  And I didn’t find it.  I found a kind of basic narrative that touched the right bases and a number of technical solutions to the difficult problems of the site.   But not simplicity.  I didn’t find the weariness of Lincoln’s face nor the temple to the intellect of Thomas Jefferson.  I found a storyboard.  I found a basic narrative, a 'Keep It Simple Stupid' narrative I hated when I was working in television news.  There was no woman with a torch lighting a way, no statement of pure strength like the Washington Monument.

In his Guardian piece, Nicolaus Mills said it just right:

“A memorial is not a biography in stone. A memorial’s task is not to sum up a life, but to capture the essence of a life in a unified, powerful image.”

He makes the case that the essence of Eisenhower is somewhere in the image of the General talking with troops from the 101st Airborne on June 5, 1944 who will, in the dark of the next day, parachute into occupied France.  The essence of the scene is that he is there with his people, connecting to them as their leader and, at the same time, another human.  Sleepless, he will later read a western novel into the night as they fall through a chaotic dark sky.  The essence is somewhere in the confidence that all of this is all necessary, a job the culture and country made and somehow chose him to do. 

Mills also surfaces a good idea.  Forget about the complicated site now under consideration.  Place the Eisenhower Monument near the World War II site where Eisenhower will be in a larger context and with his troops once again, where a good monument to him could only improve that unfortunate, clunky design. 

National Civic Art Association

National Monuments Foundation

Eisenhower Memorial Commission

Nicolaus Mills on the Eisenhower Memorial

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