A Tribute to Eisenhower

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Night view of the memorial tapestry from Independence Avenue, with Gehry’s sketch of the Normandy cliffs.

 

Explaining the contributions of a World War II hero and later President of the United States on a very modest site on Independence Avenue just off the Washington Mall is tantamount to asking an author to describe the life of this person in no more than one paragraph. But on September 17th, after a long and bumpy journey, lasting almost 20 years and navigating a warren of the DC approval processes and public scrutiny, the Eisenhower Memorial finally was dedicated and opened to the public. Designed by Frank Gehry, it has received mixed reviews, the majority being more positive. But most have pointed out that the memorial is more impressive at night than in full daylight. This is due primarily to the illumination of an almost block-long metallic tapestry—featuring a sketch by Gehry, which depicts his interpretation of the cliffs of the Normandy coastline where the Americans landed on D-Day.

 

The Competition
In 2008, the groundwork was laid for the staging of a design competition. Although one of the Commission members suggested that Frank Gehry be given the commission outright to furnish a design, cooler heads prevailed, and an invited competition* with a shortlisting process resulted in entries from four finalists:
• Gehry Partners, Santa Monica, California
• Rogers Marvel Architects PLLC, New York, NY
• Krueck & Sexton, Chicago, Illinois
• PWP Landscape Architects, Berkeley, California
Contrary to the other presenters, Gehry arrived with three proposals, not just one. This was not regarded by the jury as a rules violation, and the commission to execute the design of the memorial went to Gehry.

 

Gehry’s original proposal, as seen during a development phase after winning the competition, featured six columns bordering on Independence Avenue. It did recognize the difficulty of this rather cramped site to make such an important statement. Thus, the approach became an open area, leaving the tapestry as a backdrop to the blocks providing information about Eisenhower’s life. The only remaining columns openly visible from Independence Avenue were one at each end of the site.

 

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Early 2010 development design after the close of the competition. Photos: courtesy ©Gehry Partners

 

Dropping the idea of the majority of those columns on Independence Avenue actually became rather unimportant, as the others are now partially hidden and vaguely visible as part of the tapestry. The final use of columns, although having no support function, was on the rear side of the tapestry, facing the 1961 Department of Education building.** The relatively narrow space between the memorial and the Department of Education building was treated rather mundanely, with almost no vegetation to soften the impact of lots of stone.
But the more important features of this memorial, information-wise, were the inscriptions placed throughout the site, briefs narratives about Ike’s life, and the impressive visual interpretations of Eisenhower by sculptor, Sergey Eylanbekov.

 

 

Conclusion
Capturing the multifaceted career of Dwight Eisenhower, from army general to university president and U.S. president, is no easy task. You might say he was an administrator at different levels; with his strengths and weaknesses in all of those pursuits. What he also can be remembered for is his talent for delegating tasks to experts with real expertise in the decision-making processes, a talent so lacking in our present day administration. Gehry may only have managed to suggest this on the surface: a total image reflecting such a talent cannot be easily projected solely with the landing in Normandy. But one certain strength of this memorial is its 24-hour access, where visitors can read about Ike’s most important accomplishments during an important period in our history. 

*Here it should be noted that Ed Feiner, head of the GSA’s Excellence in Architecture program, was a strong voice for an open competition, similar to that which resulted in the Vietnam Memorial. An article on the design competition was published in COMPETITIONS, Vol. 20, #4 (2010). See: 
**This use of columns was reportedly a concession made by Gehry to obtain approval from Commission member, David Eisenhower.

 

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Current photos: ©Paul Spreiregen

 

To access the original COMPETITIONS article about the competition, go to:
https://competitions.org/2011/02/new-article/?preview_id=17063&preview_nonce=269fd837f9&_thumbnail_id=17062&preview=true