Frank Gehry has agreed to remove the two smaller of three giant screens, or as he calls them, tapestries from his design for a memorial on the Washington Mall to Dwight Eisenhower. It appears that the central sculptural plaza would remain the same. The National Capital Planning Commission, which rejected the Gehry design in April, had asked him to make changes, and this was the result. My source for the news is a story written by Sarah Anne Hughes at DCist.com, “Gehry’s revised Eisenhower memorial loses two controversial tapestries, but concerns remain.”
With the much larger surviving screen the design remains almost as odious as it was to start. In fact, here is what NCPC ex-officio member Rep. Darrell Issa told DCist: “[Gehry is] willing to give up the tapestries altogether and take his name off of it. I don’t believe that’s the best choice. We lose something if we continue to say, ‘Change it, change it.’ I think the design is as close to as good as it’s going to get, unless we decide we never liked the design in the first place.”
The last words, regarding whether the design is liked, are key.
Two of four 80-foot posts that would have held up the two defenestrated tapestries would remain, which caused some back and forth on the committee. Hearing the remaining tapestry columns referred to as “vestigial” and compared to the last scene of The Planet of the Apes, Issa decorously stepped up to their defense, arguing that they resembled pylons upholding access ramps to the Interstate Highway System pushed through by Eisenhower as president. He added, to chuckles, that perhaps a plaque explaining this could be attached to the gargantuan pillars?
Funding for the Gehry proposal has essentially been zeroed out by Congress for two years running. There are many things wrong with the process that has led to this point, resulting in a sort of cottage industry of investigative committees nibbling at the Gehry proposal. The design competition was dubious and might have been rigged, the cost has skyrocketed, the expense has been borne by the public, the fundraising companies hired to raise donations for the memorial have cost the public more than the money that has been brought in, and the architect has exhibited a highly dismissive attitude toward the idea of public input into the design process.
Killing the memorial for any or all of those reasons, while a victory for the public weal, would not defeat the stated purpose of designing and building such a memorial, which is to overturn centuries of tradition in how the nation memorializes its great citizens. If Gehry decides to remove his name from the project, that would be a great signal that the public voice is reaching the ears of authority. But if the Gehry proposal is jettisoned lock, stock and barrel because of its appearance, the victory for beauty and civility in the Nation’s Capital would be undeniable.