George F. Will: Honoring Ike with a monstrosity

George F. Will

George F. Will

WASHINGTON — We could wearily shrug, say “Oh, well,” and economize waste and annoyance by just building the proposed $142 million Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial. But long after its perpetrators are gone, it would squat there, representing Washington at its worst and proving that we have forgotten how to nurture our national memory with intelligent memorials.

This saga of arrogance and celebrity worship began in 1999 when Congress created the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission (EMC). Sixteen years later, and eight years after the project’s 2007 scheduled completion, scores of millions have been squandered and there is no memorial and no immediate prospect of building one.

It is good news that the money has been wasted: The atrocious proposal has not become a permanent blight across from Independence Avenue’s Air and Space Museum at the foot of Capitol Hill. More good news: Congress has not appropriated a penny of the $68 million the EMC requested for construction in 2016, and private fundraising is too anemic to allow architect Frank Gehry to sprawl his preposterous memorial across four acres. Its footprint would be large enough to accommodate the Washington Monument and the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, with room to spare for a monument to Gehry. Which is what the Eisenhower Memorial would be, with Ike, warrior and president, reduced to merely a pretext for Gehry’s flamboyance.

Gehry’s original proposal was for something so gargantuan it would block some views of the Capitol: There would be a statue of Eisenhower, but as a Kansas boy, and three 80-foot-tall metal “tapestries” depicting episodes from Eisenhower’s boyhood and military and political careers.

Gehry’s monstrosity has been tweaked and now is a tweaked monstrosity.

Gehry is 86, world famous and impatient with philistines who note that his proposal is discordant with the Mall’s aesthetic. But Prometheus need not conform: “There are sorts of rules about architectural expression which have to fit into a certain channel. Screw that.” Perhaps it is the license of genius to talk like a lout: “In this world we are living in, 98 percent of everything that is built and designed today is pure s—.” Gehry has prospered during his ordeal at the hands of people with tastes less refined than his: His firm has pocketed $16 million so far from work on Ike’s nonexistent memorial.

Several panels of “experts” — about what? — have given their imprimatur to Gehry’s undertaking, perhaps in order to resuscitate the hope of getting him to apply his ennobling touch to the nation’s capital. Ten years ago, the Corcoran, Washington’s oldest private art gallery, abandoned plans for Gehry to build a new wing, a proposal also begun in 1999. It too came to naught, even though, for a while, visitors entering the Corcoran walked past what The Washington Post called a “celebratory video” titled “Mr. Gehry Goes to Washington.” Not yet; ideally, never.

Michael J. Lewis, a professor of art at Williams College, notes that Gehry’s proposal fails for the same reason the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial does. King, an orator, is depicted with his lips sealed, stern and almost dour, his arms stolidly crossed. The Eisenhower and King that America knew disappear. Lewis suspects that if Gehry were asked to define a monument he would say: A monument is not a thing but a process — an open-ended conversation in which various constituencies bring different interpretations to different forms. This theory is an incitement to architectural grandiosity that eclipses the lives memorialized.

Because monuments are public art, they should, Lewis says, be “legible.” Hence, societies have traditionally resorted to triumphal arches, temples, colossal columns and obelisks, not because they are ancient but because they are timeless. The classic vocabulary of monuments looks backward: The Jefferson Memorial, Lewis notes, makes us think not of 1940 but of Jefferson. Hence Frank Lloyd Wright, modernist and egotist, detested it.

Nowadays, monuments are, Lewis says, “discursive, sentimental, addicted to narrative literalism.” The Franklin Roosevelt Memorial, completed in 1997, is, Lewis notes, “preachy” and a “cross-pollination of a diorama with a Madame Tussauds wax museum. Even FDR’s dog Fala is pantingly immortalized in bronze.” There is talk of a “digital e-memorial” at the Eisenhower Memorial, presumably to translate Gehry’s understanding of his masterwork for understandably bewildered visitors.

Washington’s Mall and its environs, one of the world’s most elegant urban spaces, is becoming cluttered with commemorative bric-a-brac dispensed by Congress that can be called “recognition pork barrel,” mollifying this and that constituency’s clamor for acknowledgment of this or that. Eisenhower certainly merits a memorial, but one consonant with his astonishing achievements and Midwestern unpretentiousness.

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