Members of the House Natural Resources subcommittee on national parks, forests and public lands listened to complaints from the Eisenhower family, and from independent advocates of traditional architecture, who are offended by what they perceive as modern tendencies in the Gehry design. But while the committee chairman, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), asked pointed questions about the design process and selection of Gehry, few seemed eager to entirely derail the memorial, which received a conceptual green light from the Commission of Fine Arts in September and was scheduled to break ground later this year. Ranking Democratic member Raul M. Grijalva (Ariz.) said he didn’t think “this subcommittee, the full committee or Congress is the appropriate place to litigate a memorial design or a potential family dispute.”
Over the past few weeks, a movement has been growing among architectural traditionalists and conservative critics to scuttle the design created by Gehry, who was selected as the memorial architect in 2009. The National Civic Art Society, a small nonprofit dedicated to “the restoration of the classical tradition to its rightful primacy in our nation’s capital,” has made opposing Gehry’s design part of a larger philosophical attack on the legacy of modernism, post-modernism and anything that smacks of avant-garde art, going all the way back to architects such as Louis Sullivan and Le Corbusier.
Justin Shubow, president and chairman of the society, has issued a 154-page attack on Gehry and his design, criticizing the architect for his association with artists such as the theater director Robert Wilson (whom he excoriates for tampering with Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”) and the renowned sculptor Charles Ray (whose work, Shubow claims, “sexualizes children”). The document is repetitious, filled with innuendo, and attacks established artists for vague associations with movements or ideas the author deems immoral. Nonetheless, it has received a remarkable amount of attention, offering talking points for conservative columnists and critics.
Gehry’s memorial has substantial defenders beyond the members of the Eisenhower Commission, an entity that may now be wavering in its enthusiasm for his work. Architect David M. Childs, who has served as chairman of the two most important design review groups in Washington, the Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission, submitted a letter of support to the subcommittee, arguing that Gehry’s design “quite appropriately builds upon classical tradition, but, as the best design always does, expresses it within contemporary interpretation, thus making it relevant to our current culture.”
But it is a difficult memorial to support for many people who would ordinarily be enthusiastic about bringing Gehry’s work to the nation’s capital. Fond memories of Ike as a strong leader and a modest man don’t necessarily translate into passionate enthusiasm for building a new memorial, especially given that Eisenhower is already memorialized at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater and the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, and that his greatest accomplishment (winning the war in Europe in 1945) is honored at the grandly overscale National World War II Memorial.