On the Growing Controversy Over Gehry's Eisenhower Memorial

Amanda Hurley examines the furor that has developed in the four months since a design by Frank Gehry for a memorial to President Dwight Eisenhower, destined for a four-acre site just off the National Mall in Washington D.C., was made public.

Critics from across the political and design landscape have been lining up to attack the design and its famous creator since Eisenhower's granddaughters, Susan and Anne, launched the first anti-memorial volley in The Washington Post last December, culminating in a debate scheduled for today at a House hearing.

Conservative critics, including the National Civic Art Society (NCAS), right-leaning publications like The Daily Caller and The American Spectator, and architectural traditionalists, have challenged the project's "style, scale, and use of an unconventional material," reports Hurley.

While Hurley accepts that some questions related to design, and the story it tells, may be valid items for debate, she sees the design competition process by which Gehry was selected as ripe for criticism.

"The controversy exposes the drawbacks of a fast-track, closed competition. The Eisenhower Memorial Commission followed the federal government's mostly laudable Design Excellence Program, which has been instrumental in getting more top-tier architects designing federal buildings by streamlining the selection process. But that program's pre-qualification of architects based on past work rules out finding young designers who might be the next Maya Lin-one cogent point made by an NCAS report amid its blizzard of otherwise hysterical rhetoric."

Full Story: Looming Large

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Architectural Style and Politics

Conservative critics, including the National Civic Art Society (NCAS), right-leaning publications like The Daily Caller and The American Spectator, and architectural traditionalists, have challenged the project's "style, scale, and use of an unconventional material," reports Hurley.

She makes the common error of confusing progressive politics with modernist architecture.

I myself dislike modernist architecture and prefer traditional architecture precisely because of my progressive green politics. In fact, there are many progressive environmental groups that support traditional neighborhood development (traditional urbanism and often traditional architecture).

To quote from my book, An Architecture for Our Time:

Modernist architecture became popular because the ideal of progress was so influential during the mid-twentieth century. These gleaming glass, steel, and concrete buildings represented the faith in technology and economic growth that was a common belief of the time. This architectural style proclaimed that the modern era was so advanced that it could ignore models from the past and let technocrats redesign society on scientific grounds. It helped spread the faith that technology and planning could heal the sick, replace the slums with hygienic housing projects, and create affluence for all.

During the 1950s, modernism still had this radical spirit. It was not only on the leading edge esthetically but also on the leading edge of progressive social reform.

During the 1960s, the modernist vision was put into practice, and it failed. Modernist housing projects became vertical slums that were even worse than the old slums they replaced. Freeways spread sprawl and blighted older neighborhoods, and by the end of the decade, revolts by local citizens made it virtually impossible to build new freeways in most central cities.

During the 1970s, modernism became the status quo, and it was oppressive. The glass and steel high rises towering over the old downtowns of our cities and the high-rise housing projects towering over old neighborhoods looked cold and impersonal - like the impersonal technological economy that produced them. Social critics said that we lived in a technological society where ordinary people are powerless. Environmentalists created a political movement dedicated to controlling destructive technologies.

Modernism changed from a radical movement to the status quo because our society changed. The modernists criticized the traditional society of the early twentieth century in the name of progress. But they have no critical insight into the new problems of today's technological society.

Charles Siegel

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