Goldberger, Eisenhower and Gehry. Architecture on Vanity Fair

24Jul12

A Monumental Conflict? For Gehry, Eisenhower or Architecture.

Everyone agrees Dwight D. Eisenhower was one of America’s greatest leaders. But the effort to memorialize the 34th president—with a monument on four acres near the Capitol—has led to open conflict, pitting Eisenhower’s grandchildren against one of America’s most respected architects, Frank Gehry.

By Paul Goldberger

If you were told that the U.S. government was offering four acres in the heart of Washington near the Capitol to honor your grandfather, and that it would be designed by the foremost architect in the United States, there are only four words you should say: Thank you very much.” That’s what I overheard a staff member of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission mutter one morning in May. We were in a hearing room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, on Capitol Hill, waiting for a meeting of the commission to be called to order, and the staff member was expressing unhappiness that certain people—two of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s granddaughters, to be precise—had not said “Thank you very much” to the commission for hiring Frank Gehry to design a memorial to their grandfather in Washington, D.C. They had not said anything remotely like it. In fact, Susan Eisenhower, an energy and foreign-policy expert in Washington, and Anne Eisenhower, a prominent interior designer based in New York, have been struggling behind the scenes for more than two years with the commission, an official body charged by Congress in 1999 with creating a memorial to Dwight Eisenhower, the general who liberated Europe in World War II and served as the 34th president of the United States.

The commission had hired Gehry, who is based in Los Angeles, in 2009 as the final step in a selection process that had begun with 44 design teams. Susan and Anne Eisenhower’s brother, the author and historian David Eisenhower, had been a member—and had appeared to support the Gehry design, according to the minutes of the commission meetings—but last December he abruptly resigned. He has refused to make any public comment since he left, beyond issuing a fence-straddling statement in which he said that he “supported efforts to assure that a memorial be built” and “I endorse the family’s efforts to gain a thorough review of the currently proposed design.”

Regardless, once David Eisenhower had given up his official position, Susan and Anne, who had until then been fairly discreet about their unhappiness, went public. At a congressional subcommittee hearing this past March, Susan cited comparisons between Gehry’s design and billboards, missile silos, totalitarian architecture, the fences around Nazi concentration camps, the Iron Curtain, and tapestries depicting Ho Chi Minh, Mao, Marx, and Lenin. She attributed these observations to others, but that was just a minor, and disingenuous, hedge: once you start talking about the work of a contemporary American architect—and a Jewish one, to boot—by saying it reminds someone of things designed by Nazis and Communists, you have pretty much declared war on it, and him.

Read the full article here.

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