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Opinion

Proposed memorial is an insult to Eisenhower

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If the National Capital Planning Commission approves Frank Gehry's design for a "memorial" to President Eisenhower in April, the nation will wind up with a monumental farce.

Slated to cost over $100 million, Gehry's scheme is opposed by the Eisenhower family, who have publicly voiced their disapproval -- Ike's grandson David recently resigned from planning commission.

A glance at Gehry's scheme shows why.

To be built between the Department of Education and the National Air and Space Museum, it will occupy one of the most prestigious pieces of real estate on the Washington's already overcrowded National Mall.

The grandiose "memorial" will encompass four acres dotted with random trees and paths bounded by 13 enormous towers, each as tall as an eight-story building. These towers will support colossal screens composed of strips of aluminum, Gehry calls them "tapestries," but in fact they look like woven chain link fences.

But where's Ike in all this? Never fear, a single short statue will depict him, as a barefoot country boy from Kansas.

Why? Well, as Gehry explains in his opaque postmodern jargon: "There are people that think this is too big a space for Eisenhower. He wasn't as important as that space is. Why does he have a space that's bigger than somebody else?

"He doesn't. He's gonna have a little plank, for a little boy. This is an image that's going to contextualize and modify the location so it can accept that little frontispiece and not get lost in the hubbub of the city. I think it's going to be very modest."

Gehry, whose buildings often look like the wreckage of 747s or drunken skyscrapers, purposely subverts the order and stability of traditional architecture.

This is evident in his Eisenhower Memorial, a cross between an amusement park and a golf course, which thumbs its nose at the neo-classical style of the great presidential monuments to Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln and many of the other buildings that line the mall.

But Gehry's architecture is exactly what cities, institutions and committees striving for cultural hipness want. He is the establishment architect of the cultural glitterati eager to display their cultural credentials.

So far Washington has escaped his clutches, although his plans to build an addition to the Corcoran Gallery of Art (another plane crash) right across from the White House, were abandoned when the institution couldn't raise the money.

It's not encouraging to remember that all the relevant planning authorities blessed this carbuncle on the Corcoran's beautiful building.

Now Gehry's back with a monstrously large monument, a sort of Eisenhowerland on the Potomac, inappropriate for its site, and lacking in all historical meaning.

Gehry was selected by the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, a body appointed by Congress and the president, as part of a closed process receiving only 44 entries. Other memorials built in recent decades on the National Mall were selected through open competitions receiving hundreds or more submissions from people ranging from young students to established architects and artists.

The Commission on Fine Arts has already approved the dreadful 80-foot-tall chain-link "tapestries". The National Capital Planning Commission will likely be considering the design at its April 5 meeting. If you want to have a say, contact your senators and representative in Congress, the Commission on Fine Arts, and the National Capital Planning Commission and tell them to just say no to the proposed design and that we should have a new fair and democratic competition open to all.

Gehry as a true postmodernist believes that there is little meaning in history and certainly no heroes. So instead of the feats of the commander in chief of the Allied Forces in World War II and two-term president of the United States, rising generations will see Ike, in Gehry's words as "a little boy" lost in the maze of the architect's ego.

That is, unless, those who still believe in heroes stop this traducing of our past.

Bruce Cole, former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities under President George W. Bush, is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

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