Fred Bernstein visits the controversial project and finds that the architect managed to rise above his critics.
Before leaving the White House in 1961, Dwight David Eisenhower warned of the rise of the military-industrial complex. He might also have warned of the memorial-industrial complex, which has produced a tribute to the former president in the nationâ€™s capital that took almost 20 years and $150 million to complete.
The scale of the memorial, which is scheduled to open on Sept. 17, and which was designed by Frank Gehry, FAIA, and executed in partnership with AECOM, is staggering. Its key feature is a metal tapestry 60 feet tall and 450 feet wideâ€”almost three quarters of an acre of woven stainless steel, held aloft by piers the height of an eight-story building. The screen replicates a freehand sketch by Gehry himself of Pointe du Hoc, a D-Day landing site in Normandy. The tapestry is nearly transparent in daytime: The gridded faĂ§ade of the 1961 Lyndon Baines Johnson Department of Education Building, designed by the firms Faulkner, Kingsbury and Stenhouse and Chatelain, Gauger and Nolan, is visible behind it. But when the sun goes down, the memorial comes alive. Thanks to the lighting scheme by the New York firm Lâ€™Observatoire International, the outlines of Gehryâ€™s sketch glow brightly on the tapestry, to dramatic effect. Meanwhile, the pylons, clad in the same pinkish Ambar limestone as the paving underfoot, are abstract, scaleless elements.
Located just southwest of the Capitol, in a neighborhood of overbearing bureaucratic architecture, Gehry's handiwork is gentle and unobtrusive. In fact, the four-acre site on Independence Avenue feels more like a park than a memorial. Gehry Partners, working with AECOM landscape architect Roger Courtenay, added nearly 100 trees, many of which gently screen the screen. Together, the tapestry and trees soften the relentless, 500-foot-long faĂ§ade of the LBJ building, which was initially known by the fittingly generic name Federal Office Building No. 6. Critics had feared the tapestry would loom like a giant metal billboard. But the success of Gehryâ€™s design seems to rest on the tapestryâ€™s failure, at least in daytime, to do anything more than temper the faĂ§ade behind it. Far from being an affront to the LBJ building, it is a salve.
Ike was known for his modestyâ€”he claimed to be prouder of his Kansas boyhood than of any other chapter of his lifeâ€”which had suggested that the memorial itself ought to be similarly modest. In a 2012 letter, the former presidentâ€™s son, John S.D. Eisenhower criticized Gehryâ€™s design as â€śtoo extravagantâ€ť and for trying to tell â€śtoo many storiesâ€ť (a job, he said, that is â€śbest left to museums.") He said he would have preferred a simple statue in a park. But while the end result is more extravagant than that, it is one John Eisenhower, who died in 2013, might have found comforting.
Gehry, who is 91, is sometimes imagined to be an artiste whose initial ideas are sacrosanct. In fact, clients invariably describe him as willing to change his designs, sometimes repeatedly, in response to criticism as well as to shifts in program and budget. During his career, he has been able to build most of what he envisioned precisely because he is willing to compromise.
Gehry conceived of the tapestry as a way of bringing a bit of enclosure to the site without putting a wall in front of the LBJ building. His original design called for not one but three large panels, arranged in a C-shape that bracketed the rectangular parcel. The panels were to feature scenes of Abilene, Kan.â€”Ikeâ€™s hometown. But civic watchdogs were alarmed that one of the shorter panels would block views of the Capitol from Maryland Avenue, which intersects the site diagonally. And Eisenhowerâ€™s descendants believed the focus of the memorial shouldnâ€™t be Ike as a schoolboy but Ike as the Supreme Allied Commander and the 34th president of the United States.
Worse, members of the Eisenhower family said they were offended by the very idea of the tapestry itself. During testimony before Congress in 2013, Susan Eisenhower compared it to the Iron Curtain and the kind of roadside billboards that her grandfather disliked. The massive pylons, she added, might suggest missile silos. The Eisenhower familyâ€™s allies in Congress, who would have preferred a more traditional memorialâ€”echoing the attacks on Maya Linâ€™s Vietnam Veterans Memorial 40 years earlierâ€”blocked funding for the project. Gehryâ€™s design was pronounced dead.