There were no fireworks—in fact, there were anything but—when representatives of architect Frank Gehry presented an assortment of design changes for the planned Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial to the Commission of Fine Arts today. Even the usually outspoken critics of the Gehry design were relatively restrained in remarks following the formal presentation by Gehry partner Craig Webb and landscape architect Roger Courtenay.
“It’s progressing. It’s moving forward,” commission chairman Rusty Powell, who is also head of the National Gallery of Art, said after the meeting.
That relatively rosy view contrasted with the ire sparked by the Gehry team’s changes earlier in the week, when the architect’s office released a 74-page description of the updated design. On Wednesday, Representative Rob Bishop, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation, called the revisions “very disappointing.”
But Bishop was not at the CFA meeting (nor was he expected), and the presentation was focused almost entirely on revisions to the landscape design—trees, paving materials, walking paths—that had been requested by the CFA the last time Gehry Partners came before them in November. Conspicuously absent was discussion of the most controversial elements of the Gehry plan: metal alloy tapestries and stone columns that dominate the planned four-acre “urban park” on the Mall, adjacent to the National Air and Space Museum and the LBJ Department of Education Building.
Webb said Gehry is “staying with the overall big ideas of the project,” and went on to mention the tapestries as essential to the “framing” of an “urban room.” They will be woven with Midwestern landscapes, hanging high over the memorial park.
Webb also mentioned another element, a depiction of a young Eisenhower, as “key to bringing those values together” of the Midwest, of a “young man looking to the future,” and “what this man did for the country.” Seventy-four trees have been added to the design, and Courtenay said they represent all kinds of species, with a London plane as the “signature tree,” as well as hackberry.
The commissioners did not act on the proposed changes at the meeting, with CFA executive director Thomas Luebke noting the overall design already has standing approval.
After Webb and Courtenay spoke and showed illustrations, the meeting was opened to comment from the audience. Three people rose to speak, all of them with objections to the Gehry design.
Don Hawkins, of the nonprofit Committee of 100 on the Federal City, said his group “has many disagreements with the basic notion of this design,” in particular its impact on Independence Avenue. Judy Scott Feldman, president of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall, said, among other points, that a memorial to Eisenhower would be better situated near the World War II Memorial. She worried, too, that “this four-acre site is now filled with design. . . . A memorial is an idea, a work of art, and we have some great memorials in this town. There is no unity anymore to this design.”
The last to speak was Justin Shubow of the National Civic Art Society, who complained that the Gehry design is a theatrical stage set and likely doomed. “All the world might be a stage,” he said, “but no one likes a third act that drags on forever. We therefore respectfully request that this commission recognize Mr. Gehry’s design for what it is—and call it curtains.”
Members of the CFA spoke, too. Fernandez said “there’s nothing wrong with theater for a design concept” unless elements of the design are “used in defense of that.” Elizabeth Meyer commended the designers for producing a “more coherent” park but said she’s frustrated by receiving only “partial conceptual” revisions and thus “we don’t see the project in its entirety.”
Perhaps that will happen the next time the Eisenhower Memorial surfaces in the long and ongoing review process, which is a scheduled April 3 appearance before the National Capital Planning Commission.
UPDATE 6:30 PM: Late Thursday, the Eisenhower Memorial Commission sent this comment to Washingtonian: “We are most gratified that Chairman Powell stated at the conclusion of the meeting that the project is progressing and that it is moving forward. The CFA commissioners reiterated their support of concept approval, first given in 2011 and again in 2013, and are focusing their remarks today, and in the future, on refinements to that concept. Today’s meeting focused on development of the landscape design. The presentation was met with general approval, and we look forward to continuing our collaborative effort with CFA in the coming months.”