David Frum

02.21.12

Redesign the Ike Monument

It says something not good about US society that we seem to need more and more acres of space for monuments that have less and less to say.

The new Martin Luther King monument was bad.

The proposed Eisenhower monument is shaping up to be even worse. George Will's assessment:

Filling four acres across Independence Avenue from the National Mall, the memorial will have a colonnade of huge limestone-clad columns from which will hang 80-foot stainless-steel mesh “tapestries” depicting images evocative of Eisenhower’s Kansas youth. And almost as an afterthought, there will be a statue of Eisenhower — as a boy.

Philip Kennicott, The Post’s cultural critic, says that the statue suggests Eisenhower “both innocent of and yet pregnant with whatever failings history ultimately attributes to his career.”

...

Kennicott praises Gehry’s project because it allows visitors “space to form their own assessment of Eisenhower’s legacy.” 

Will objects that the monument does not say enough about Eisenhower's greatness. I'd restate that objection slightly. The core problem here is that the monument does not have anything to say, period. It reminds me of those self-help books that bulk out their space with blank pages in which readers are invited to jot their own thoughts.

Washington already has one big, obtrusive monument with nothing to say: the operatic and absurd World War II monument, carved with banal quotes and organized to memorialize the several states, not because the states retained much emotional force in 1941-45 (they did not), but mostly because the architects could not think of any better idea. I very much doubt that anybody ever came away from that monument thinking anything other than: "the fountains are pretty" or "that must have cost a lot."

Here's a thought on the Ike monument. Go back to the drawing board. Shrink the monument's footprint. Then hire a designer who has something to say about Eisenhower and his time. The genius of Frank Gehry is that he is interested in pure form. He rejects the constraints of time, place, and subject matter. Result: a Gehry building is always about Gehry. Hiring him to design a monument to somebody else was an exercise in predictable failure.