In Defense of Frank Gehry

The memorial commission responds to charges that the planned Eisenhower memorial resembles a “theme park” and says the family has made “factual errors.”
Daniel Feil: “The eight-foot-high wall behind the sculptural grouping provides the location for excerpts from three of Eisenhower’s most famous speeches. These elements form the memorial core.” Illustration courtesy of Gehry Partners.

Recently we ran a Q&A with Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of former president Dwight D. Eisenhower, about her family’s uniform objections to the proposed Frank Gehry design for the Dwight D. Eisenhower National Presidential Memorial, which is to be built adjacent to the Mall and the Lyndon Baines Johnson Department of Education. Eisenhower compared the design to a “theme park” and said the family objected to it on many fronts, including whether it was environmentally sustainable. Also, she said, it “has its back” to the education department, and her grandfather “didn’t have his back to Lyndon Johnson.”

In response to that post, we heard from Daniel J. Feil, who has served as executive architect for the Eisenhower Memorial Commission for the past six years. He said the Susan Eisenhower interview had “an ill effect,” and that the Commission’s point of view should be heard, too. Here is our conversation:

What was the ill effect of the Q&A with Susan Eisenhower?

There are factual errors.

What do you consider to be the factual errors?

She says the original concept was a green square and that it was going to be open, like Farragut Square or other squares in town. It really wasn’t the case. It has become more and more green, and that has been a promise to the review agencies. The paving has been really minimized.

She also objected to the metal tapestries?

The idea with the tapestry is creating a setting for the memorial. The tapestries are not the memorial. They are the setting for the memorial.

What about the Eisenhower family’s concern that there will be a wall separating the memorial from the Department of Education?

Education had that concern initially. But we have worked with them. We erected mock-ups that were 10 by 15 feet, showing different ways we thought the tapestries might be effected. They saw one design they thought might be quite wonderful. The tapestries are 70 feet away from the building.

The Education Department has endorsed the Gehry design?

Yes. And we got a letter from Secretary Arne Duncan about wanting to develop the LBJ Promenade, which will connect the Memorial and the ED. That promenade gives a fabulous chance to engage with the public. The Department of Education is now working with the Gehry team.

Daniel Feil: “The core is located within the civic space, which is a park defined by the tapestries. The tapestries are the setting for the memorial.” Illustration courtesy of Gehry Partners.

Do you think the family should have a say?

They have had a say. David Eisenhower was a commissioner.

But he quit.

Yes. But he was involved in the selection of Gehry, and he voted for the Gehry design. On March 31, 2009, he was part of the unanimous vote for Gehry and his team. On March 25, 2010, he voted along with all the other commissioners for the scheme that has the tapestry and the core within, which celebrates [Dwight Eisenhower’s] achievements as a president and as a general. There are images in the core of him addressing the 101st Airborne one day before D-Day, and the other is by Yousuf Karsh of him just after his presidency, with his hand on the globe, which speaks to his presidency and his internationalism. They will be on a heroic scale. David Eisenhower voted for the concept, and on July 12, 2011, he voted in favor of the development of the design and seconded the motion.

When did he resign?

Toward the end of December.

There’s also been controversy about the reported selection of Charles Ray to do a sculpture of Eisenhower as a boy.

He’ll be in his teens.

Will he be naked or clothed?

Clothed. But the sculptor has not been engaged.

So you’re still looking for a sculptor?

Yes. We hope to have someone engaged in the next few months.

Are you the principal liaison with Gehry?

Yes.

He was thwarted in his proposed design for an addition to the Corcoran Gallery in 2005 due to budget issues. Does he get tired of trying to design things for Washington?

Not that I’ve heard. The Corcoran was disappointing for them, but that was different. His office understands that every city has people and organizations you have to work with. This process is the process it is. You always have groups you need to work with.

What’s the next stage?

We’re going to the National Capital Planning Commission March 1 for preliminary design approval. We are also trying to engage with the family before that, with Susan and Anne in particular, and we are moving forward.

Do you expect significant public blowback at the NCPC hearing?

I would expect there will be a fair amount of public comment.

Do you think any additional changes will be made to the memorial?

There will be changes, because we are going through review processes, and we want to continue to engage the family. But the changes at this point should not be large. We went to the Commission on Fine Arts for approval, and it was unanimous and enthusiastic.

When do you hope to break ground?

By the end of this year.

Do you think there are too many memorials in Washington?

It’s not for me to say.

What do you want to say to the Eisenhower family?

I’ll tell you what I said to them. I said there was a lot of focus on the tapestries initially because they had not been done before. Tapestry is a traditional memorial form. We had to have a research and development phase to prove it could work, to prove it could be sufficiently transparent. There was quite the parallel effort on the core. I would ask them to once again try to engage and see the core for what it is. They will see that the tapestries are not as dominant as previously thought.

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