Eisenhower Memorial Controversy Puts Focus on Urban Design

Having worked in communities big and small across the continent, we’ve had ample opportunity to test ideas and find approaches that work best. Urban design details. Outreach tactics. Implementation tricks. Many of these lessons are transferable, which is why we’ve created “Back of the Envelope,” a weekly feature where we jot ’em down for your consideration.

How do we honor our heroes?

The current dust-up over Frank Gehry’s proposed Dwight D. Eisenhower memorial has brought the issue, and the conversation, to the forefront. Within it has been some well-articulated opposition from prominent urbanists, including this from Léon Krier, this from Dhiru Thadani and this from Christine Franck.

Perhaps not surprisingly for regular readers here, I’ve got my own ideas on the matter, centered on place and the general premise that we best honor those of great contribution and sacrifice by doing so with deference. Not just to the complexities of their individual legacies but to the surrounding urban context as well.

My submission to the committee spells out my position:

House Committee on Natural Resources
Attn. Chief Legislative Clerk
1324 Longworth House Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20515

Dear Mr. Chairman and Distinguished Members:

As a member of the General Services Administration (GSA) Design Excellence Peer Review Committee, I wish to share my professional design opinion that Frank Gehry’s proposal, as presented to your National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Oversight Subcommittee Hearing on March 20th, is irrelevant to the point of disrespectful in its attempt to memorialize President Eisenhower.

Being 2012, our nation’s architectural culture is finally unshackled from the 20th-century’s ‘Starchitect’ conceit. We are again able to design freely with tradition, context, urbanism, sustainability and pragmatism. These 21st-century values should be expressed through our memorials and civic buildings as these places are complex and deftly built to balance both memory and expectation. It is my opinion that Mr. Gehry’s latest-modernist-paradigm-above-all-else plan intends to add metaphorical complexity to an already complex place, reducing the visitor’s experience to one of confusion.

The Eisenhower Memorial Commission and Frank Gehry’s mixed-metaphor project intentionally lacks the expected dignity in remembrance of President Eisenhower. Upon review, the plan actually appears to be a memorial to the latest modernist fad, Landscape Urbanism. The contradicting landscape metaphors imposed on a visitor include: a roofless memorial; a park within a park; the rural Kansas barefoot boy-warrior; a rural landscape ‘tapestry’ set in contrast to our nation’s urban, civic core context, and; a naturalistic landscape grown in ‘modern’ ruins that do in fact ‘ruin’ L’Enfant’s planned axis from the Capital to the Jefferson Memorial along Maryland Avenue.

Because of these many conflicting, faddish metaphors, Mr. Gehry’s irrelevant design proposal challenges the very essence of a national memorial in Washington DC, which again has nothing to do with the memory of President Eisenhower. Simply imagining a Frank Gehry brand building makes it easy to understand his limitations as an architect to craft a civic building that has, according the GSA guiding principles for Federal Architecture, “design qualities which reflect the regional architectural traditions of that part of the Nation in which buildings are located.”

Fortunately, the critique surrounding this project is indicative of the declining status of contemporary ‘Starchitecture’ in our national discourse. The backlash towards Mr. Gehry’s project failure points towards a maturity within our nation’s architectural culture as we collectively demand a more responsible approach for how we build great civic places in the 21st century. We will once again build dignified memorials that fit within the context of our honorable National Mall. 

In light of this failed GSA Design Excellence project process, I recommend your Subcommittee also consider the design alternatives and open design process presented by the National Civic Art Society and Institute for Classical Architecture Mid-Atlantic Chapter. 

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely yours,

–Howard Blackson

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Filed under Architecture, Planning and Design

6 responses to “Eisenhower Memorial Controversy Puts Focus on Urban Design

  1. Mr. Blackson,

    As a fellow American, NCAS board member, and fellow architect I want to thank you for your insightful and persuasively written piece contra Gehry,
    I have no doubt that your lucid remarks will assist us in this fight for our nation’s capital and memory.

    Milton W. Grenfell, NCARB, CNU, ICA &A

  2. Mr.Blackson,

    What you say is well and good, however your discourse on Urbanism is spotty at best.

    The two illustrations you offer in your posting above, or rather the second illustration, offered as your recommended ‘way to go’, and labeled, astoundingly: “The Washington DC Plan: Eisenhower Memorial (buildings and monument assemble to create a great space)”, is crude beyond measure.

    It is every bit as arbitrary and compositionally disembodied and urbanistically meaningless as the challenged Gehry design. Suffice to say amateurish — in the worst sense of that word ……… and do we recognize that tall column (“monument”) placed totally improbably, smack in the middle of the artificially-assembled identified ‘site’ as one of the dysfunctional bogus offerings advanced ad-nauseam by unethical NCAS insiders?

    Now, for your education, and for the proper information of the public as to just how high the bar is set here, I will refer you to our Plan for the Memorial and other complimentary uses on this four acre site.

    Our Plan represents state-of-the-art Urban Design and indeed does not inhabit the same offensively inept and unprofessional level of intervention seen in any other offering among the 80+ submitted to date for this Project, in the course of two (decidedly questionable) ‘competitions’: that organized by the ‘Memorial Commission’ and that sponsored jointly by the National Civic Art Society and the Institute for Classical Architecture.

    Our Plan was awarded, in the latter Counterproposals Competition, a curious ‘Third Place’, among a field of entries (including that ‘tall column’ number you appear to show), solidly in Classical garb, to be sure, but in their uniform urbanistic ineptness no better at all than the Gehry design.

    You refer to informed and respected urbanists having weighed in on this Project, and you provide a link to the Leon Krier’s superb essay.

    I recommend you carefully read that essay and that you take particular note of Mr.Krier’s thoughts on our Plan expressed in its closing paragraphs.

    I would further recommend that in any further discussions or postings regarding the important role of urbanism in the design of this Memorial you not embarrass yourself with cartoonish, dysfunctional sketches, of bogus self-serving proposals, but rise to ethically address and promote a Plan now on the table that represents one of the most sophisticated pieces of Urban Design ever put forth for our Capital City.

    I sincerely hope you can do this. There has already been far too much smallness and lack of integrity in this process — on all sides, to be sure!
    — at the expense of the character and quality of our shared heritage.

    Best to you.

    Francisco Ruiz, Architect

  3. Narrative description of Francisco Ruiz Plan:

    Proposal for Eisenhower Memorial by Francisco Ruiz, Architect

    The plan submitted by my firm last Spring for the Eisenhower Memorial received recognition by the National Civic Art Society in the competition which it sponsored for counterproposals for the design of the Memorial last year (“Plan”.). The Plan locates the Memorial on one third of the large identified site, at its most visible and public northeast corner, where Independence, Maryland, and Fourth Street intersect. The various components of the Memorial are then arranged around a new ceremonial public space, “Eisenhower Plaza”, conceived as a plausible articulation of and flanking Independence Avenue.

    Here, the Memorial Hall is placed along the axis of Maryland Avenue,directly addressing the Capitol and housing a representation of President Eisenhower. The President is standing at the conclusion of the delivery of his landmark Farewell Address—an analog to Daniel Chester French’s seated Lincoln at the close of his Gettysburg Address, likewise addressing the Capitol. Further punctuating Eisenhower Plaza is a Visitors Welcome Pavillion and the proposed General Eisenhower Column. Honoring the Supreme Allied Commander, the Column rises eighty feet and is placed at the center line of Fourth Street. This is in direct alignment with the standing Lincoln at the center of Judiciary Square across the Mall, and is intended both as a beacon announcing the Memorial and a strong formal link to the Mall itself.

    It is important to notice that the sunken courtyard of the adjacent Johnson, Department of Education Building has been fully preserved — presenting an opportunity for its use to mark individual memorialization of President Johnson — and the Eisenhower Memorial components are sensitively and respectfully related thereto.

    Toward the west, Memorial Hall nestles comfortably into a re-established street-defining urban fabric formed by two proposed five-story mixed-use buildings, intended to be private-sector-developed. They define a casual and engaging pedestrian urban space, “Maryland Square”, offering hospitable services to the visitor. It is both intended to function as a focus and principal gateway into the SW Quadrant, while serving as a powerful impetus to the restoration of urbanity in the rest of this district further along the Maryland Avenue corridor.

    The components of the Memorial have been designed in the Greek Revival Style — characteristic of the Capital’s earliest decades and unquestionably the most American among Classicism’s diverse manifestations. Once known as “our national style,” it is identified by its simplicity, strength and directness — traits all quite consonant with the character of Dwight D. Eisenhower.

    The Plan provides a Memorial design of symbolic importance and engaging icharacter to guide and inspire. It creates an important new public space and monument in L’Enfant’s Capital of highly emblematic and harmonious character. Most important, it is redolent with positive and healing implications for the reinvigoration and future of our Capital. As described by distinguished urbanist, Leon Krier, in his analytical essay on the Eisenhower Memorial, recently published in Metropolis Magazine, “……..the New Eisenhower….[Memorial]……can also become the occasion for a critically needed Washington D.C. urban Renaissance, resurrecting the human scale, the measure, color, variety and soul of the original L’Enfant vision, as brilliantly demonstrated by Francisco Ruiz’s proposal.”

  4. Mr. Ruiz,

    Given the recognized strength and relevance of your proposal, it’s clear that you are a man who understands the role of context in urban planning and civic design. That’s good, as it will allow you to more easily understand that a similar concept exists when one is writing about ideas. In short, who you’re writing for and what actions you seek to encourage, vary. Thus, one’s message must be contextually informed.

    If you’re a regular reader here, you know that we write for a layperson audience because, in the battle for stronger, more competitive, more endearing communities, we’re more concerned with empowering the ground troops and their efforts towards positive change than we are in engaging in pedantic arguments with those we largely agree with. As such, Mr. Blackson’s piece was an effort to bring the conflict of the Eisenhower Memorial outside the Beltway so that those grappling with issues of civic space in their own communities could better understand the relationships between urban planning, shared space, history and meaningful tribute.

    As best I can tell from your comments, you either a) feel a compulsion to lash out at those who explicitly agree with your position and are working to further the support network that would aid in your efforts; or b) simply don’t recognize the difference between a crude blog illustration for a lay audience and the specifics of a formal design proposal.

    Personally, we hope that both prove untrue. But, as time is a limited commodity for all of us, we would suggest that you spend more of yours converting hearts and minds and less attacking those demonstrating support for what you and other skilled and sincere designers are doing.

    That’s how things begin to change.

  5. “PlaceShakers” ……………… whoever you are,

    Your self rationalizing essay aside, the lack of integrity and the complicity of quite a few of your ‘cadres’ in the not-so-positive manipulation and suppression of highly important and significant information and indeed of important achievements, combined with their generally astonishingly crude training and work (Notre Dame Arch. jumps to mind vividly here) and the evident dedication to political-tactics-above-all-damn-integrity-and-respect remains quite distressing — and something to continue to firmly address.

    Sorry if you or anyone else takes a dedication to expose and defend what is good and right as some form of personal offense.

    We invite you to evolve beyond this grasping real-politik scene and modus operandi toward a world of ethics and meaning and true respect for those who bravely deal earnestly and indepth with ideas and who do work of real quality and not merely wallow in a half-literate clubby ideology.



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