Eisenhower and the Art-Architecture Complex

March 27, 2013 Topic: Society Blog Brand: The Buzz

Eisenhower and the Art-Architecture Complex

The legends of postmodern design have acquired unwarranted influence over the market for prominent new construction.

A controversial design for the Washington memorial to President Eisenhower has hit more than a bump—the project is nearly derailed. Now that even the typically avant-garde New Yorker has run an item weighing in against plans submitted by leading architect Frank Gehry, critics of his postmodern proposal may succeed in convincing Congress to reset the planning process.

That's what some family members—including Eisenhower son John and granddaughter Susan—have called for. The relatives have been joined by the National Civic Art Society, which advocates for traditional memorials. In 2011, the group even held an unofficial competition seeking alternative designs

For the first time since plans for the memorial were revealed in 2010, Gehry's critics seem to have the upper hand. As the New Yorker's Jeffrey Frank explains, "the memorial, which so far has cost more than sixty-two million dollars—a sum that would have appalled the fiscally austere Eisenhower—has still produced little more than acrimony. It has managed to achieve something rare in Washington: in true bipartisan spirit, almost everyone hates it."

With members of Congress joining the Gehry critics, their rhetoric may now be backed by the power of the public purse. As the Times reports, "Rob Bishop, a Republican from Utah, has introduced legislation calling for a new design competition and the elimination of nearly $100 million in financing to complete the memorial." At least one Democrat, James P. Moran of Virginia, has also expressed skepticism about the Gehry design.

The parameters for a new design competition remain up for debate. Frank suggests that a "complete reboot" should look for inspiration in a crystal bowl Eisenhower received upon the first anniversary of his inauguration. The cup features engravings depicting Eisenhower as a boy from Kansas, West Point cadet, commander of the Normandy invasion and thirty-fourth president of the United States.

If a newly constituted memorial commission takes such an ornamental approach, they might consider turning to the architects represented in the National Civic Art Society competition. This type of traditional vocabulary is clearly outside the scope of a postmodernist like Gehry or any of his colleagues. 

Whatever the aesthetic merits of Gehry and his fellow "starchitects," there is no question that their method has a monopoly on the market for prominent new construction. In his farewell address, the former general warned Americans about the corrosive effect of this kind of powerful coalition—his concern was the "military-industrial complex"—on our civic life. Today some describe the dominance of Gehry and others in the realm of design as the "art-architecture complex."

If the critics of Gehry succeed, a turn away from the monotony of the design establishment may go a long way toward capturing the spirit of the Eisenhower legacy.