Rethink the Eisenhower memorial
The Kansas City Star
One day, Dwight D. Eisenhower, the only U.S. president from Kansas, will be honored in Washington, D.C., on the scale of Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson. His memorial was supposed to begin construction this fall, in time to open on Memorial Day 2015, the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.
Instead, the controversial design proposed by architect Frank Gehry is on indefinite hold amid questions about its size and cost and its unprecedented use of experimental materials.
President Eisenhower’s son John has called for a redesign on behalf of his entire family. His call has been echoed by veterans, architects and members of Congress. The controversy has hardly been acknowledged by the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, however, which has waged an aggressive public relations campaign to promote its chosen design, most recently with a booth at the Kansas State Fair in September.
Such divisiveness will not produce the unifying national symbol we all want.
As Kansas’ representatives on the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, Senators Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran are uniquely placed to help make the fresh start this project needs.
It should begin again with a new design process because the way Mr. Gehry was chosen is the source of the current controversy.
The Eisenhower Memorial Commission turned to the federal government’s Design Excellence Program, which is more often used for public buildings with especially demanding security requirements, such as courthouses. This program considers only registered architects, on the basis of their reputations and experience, and these were the criteria used to select Mr. Gehry.
This selection process was a break from our established tradition of relying on open, public competitions to find designers for our national memorials.
Entrants make anonymous submissions, which are judged on merit. Inexperienced winners receive help from experts, and if their designs prove unbuildable or too expensive, second- and third-place entries provide alternatives.
This sensible approach appeals to our democratic ideals because it offers everyone an equal opportunity.
As importantly, it has worked over and over. We relied on it to choose the designers of four of the last five memorials built on the National Mall, as well as all three of the national Sept. 11 memorials.
The Eisenhower Memorial Commission’s decision to use a more restrictive and less democratic process has left us without alternatives to a controversial design that is far more expensive than planned and so far does not meet federal requirements that it be durable and permanent.
Originally expected to cost between $55 and $75 million, in keeping with the other presidential memorials on the Mall, the Eisenhower Memorial is now estimated to cost $142 million.
Mr. Gehry has proposed eight-story hanging metal screens that have never been built before, let alone on the vast scale he intends. Prototypes are being subjected to exhaustive testing for weathering and durability, but without existing examples we cannot know how these experimental elements will hold up over time.
Some members of the commission appeared to be having second thoughts. The late vice chairman Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, a decorated World War II veteran and senator who died recently, had raised doubts about continuing with the current design. His fellow commissioners from President Eisenhower’s home state have the opportunity to help chart a new course.
Returning to the proven, democratic design process that is customary for our national memorials would make a good start.
Sam Roche is a writer and a lecturer at the University of Miami School of Architecture. He is the spokesman for Right by Ike: Project for a New Eisenhower Memorial.