Commentary Magazine


Topic: Frank Gehry

Ordered Liberty and Controlled Chaos

The National Civic Art Society has done yeoman’s work in highlighting the historical, cultural, and aesthetic follies of Frank Gehry’s proposed memorial to Dwight Eisenhower. Andrew Ferguson notes in the most recent Weekly Standard, the design is both “grandiose and pointless,” but as Jonathan has commented, the monument does in fact have a point: to revise and diminish Eisenhower. Its so-called tapestries remind the Society of a “rat’s nest of tangled steel,” though to my eye, they look more like metallic shoelaces fashioned into a post-modern memorial of mourning for Holocaust victims. There’s nothing heroic or triumphant about them, and that’s why they’re there. Entirely out of keeping with the rest of the Mall, and loathed by the Eisenhower family, they will–if constructed–soon go the way of most modern architecture: rain-stained, rusted, and broken, an enduring statement of our contempt for great men, our loss of the heroic vocabulary, and our refusal to stand up to the self-promoting cleverness of an artistic culture that exists to tell us we are not worthy of their genius.

Gehry’s philosophy of design reminds me of my encounters with deconstructionist theory in graduate school: disorienting, until you realize the point of the enterprise is not to convey meaning but to smash it, all the while assuming a pose of ironic, superior, unsmashed detachment in order to win immunity from criticism. Gehry’s leitmotif is that “life is chaotic, dangerous, and surprising,” democracy is either chaos or at best “controlled chaos,” and so buildings should be chaotic as well. This is the kind of thing that sounds good until you think about it for five seconds. Modern democracies are in fact the most unchaotic, predictable, secure societies in the history of the world – the only way they look chaotic is next to the Garden of Eden, or the paradise of the planner.

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The National Civic Art Society has done yeoman’s work in highlighting the historical, cultural, and aesthetic follies of Frank Gehry’s proposed memorial to Dwight Eisenhower. Andrew Ferguson notes in the most recent Weekly Standard, the design is both “grandiose and pointless,” but as Jonathan has commented, the monument does in fact have a point: to revise and diminish Eisenhower. Its so-called tapestries remind the Society of a “rat’s nest of tangled steel,” though to my eye, they look more like metallic shoelaces fashioned into a post-modern memorial of mourning for Holocaust victims. There’s nothing heroic or triumphant about them, and that’s why they’re there. Entirely out of keeping with the rest of the Mall, and loathed by the Eisenhower family, they will–if constructed–soon go the way of most modern architecture: rain-stained, rusted, and broken, an enduring statement of our contempt for great men, our loss of the heroic vocabulary, and our refusal to stand up to the self-promoting cleverness of an artistic culture that exists to tell us we are not worthy of their genius.

Gehry’s philosophy of design reminds me of my encounters with deconstructionist theory in graduate school: disorienting, until you realize the point of the enterprise is not to convey meaning but to smash it, all the while assuming a pose of ironic, superior, unsmashed detachment in order to win immunity from criticism. Gehry’s leitmotif is that “life is chaotic, dangerous, and surprising,” democracy is either chaos or at best “controlled chaos,” and so buildings should be chaotic as well. This is the kind of thing that sounds good until you think about it for five seconds. Modern democracies are in fact the most unchaotic, predictable, secure societies in the history of the world – the only way they look chaotic is next to the Garden of Eden, or the paradise of the planner.

Gehry’s vast metallic boils could hardly be built in societies lacking the exquisite organization and predictability of modern engineering and finance. It’s a waste of time to expect modern architects to recognize how lucky they are to live in a society that can afford to take their pretensions seriously, or to show any gratitude for their good fortune. But I would love to dispatch believers in democratic chaos to live in Sudan or Somalia for a few weeks, so they could get a sense of just how nasty, brutish, and short life is for lots of people outside the advanced democracies. The U.S. is not controlled chaos, which implies that the job of the government is to exercise control and the job of the people to be chaotic. It is an experiment in ordered liberty, where government and society rest on the popular moral sense that modern architecture seeks to debase by identifying it as the unwanted residue of the past. There are always going to be unexpected events in life – that’s the nature of it – but the purpose of memorial architecture in a democracy is to remember heroes who helped to stem for a while the tide of chaos, not to embody disorder and decay. The former is a human achievement; the latter is the normal state of affairs.

The proposed memorial has nothing to do with America’s ordered liberty, or Ike’s dedication to defending it. It’s heartening that Congressmen Dan Lungren (R-CA) and Aaron Schock (R-IL) have come out against this monstrosity, and today’s news that a House subcommittee will hold a hearing on the memorial – coupled with a letter from Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) that hints at further hearings –  is even better. But where are Kansas’s representatives – in the House, Senate, and on the state level – on the question? It is one of their most famous native sons whom this memorial proposes to trivialize, and, on the political level, I doubt there are any votes to be lost in Kansas (or in Pennsylvania, around Eisenhower’s Gettysburg farm, for that matter) by stating that a hero of the Second World War and a two-term president deserves better than a stack of rusty steel shoelaces.

Anything sympathetic political leaders can do to draw broader attention to this travesty would do a world of good.

 

 

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Why Don’t They Like Ike?

During his presidency, Dwight Eisenhower suffered the disdain of American intellectuals who looked down their noses at the war hero. Secure in the adulation of the American public, Eisenhower never took much notice of these detractors. But unless the National Capitol Planning Commission acts to reject the plans already approved by the United States Commission on Fine Arts and the National Parks Service for a new Eisenhower Memorial scheduled to open in 2015, those who would wish to diminish the legacy of the 34th president will have their way.

George Will added his voice to the growing chorus of critics of the proposed design of the memorial on Friday when he rightly noted, “The proposal is an exhibitionistic triumph of theory over function — more a monument to its creator, Frank Gehry, practitioner of architectural flamboyance, than to the most underrated president.” The simmering controversy was ignited by the decision last month of the Eisenhower family to make public their dismay at a memorial that will portray the architect of the victory over the Nazis as a naive farm boy rather than as a leader of armies and nations. President’s Day is an apt moment to consider why in a city full of grandiose tributes to the past Eisenhower is being treated in this way.

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During his presidency, Dwight Eisenhower suffered the disdain of American intellectuals who looked down their noses at the war hero. Secure in the adulation of the American public, Eisenhower never took much notice of these detractors. But unless the National Capitol Planning Commission acts to reject the plans already approved by the United States Commission on Fine Arts and the National Parks Service for a new Eisenhower Memorial scheduled to open in 2015, those who would wish to diminish the legacy of the 34th president will have their way.

George Will added his voice to the growing chorus of critics of the proposed design of the memorial on Friday when he rightly noted, “The proposal is an exhibitionistic triumph of theory over function — more a monument to its creator, Frank Gehry, practitioner of architectural flamboyance, than to the most underrated president.” The simmering controversy was ignited by the decision last month of the Eisenhower family to make public their dismay at a memorial that will portray the architect of the victory over the Nazis as a naive farm boy rather than as a leader of armies and nations. President’s Day is an apt moment to consider why in a city full of grandiose tributes to the past Eisenhower is being treated in this way.

Gehry’s design seems to be a revolt against classical Washington architecture with its most prominent feature being a series of large stainless steel woven tapestries depicting events in Eisenhower’s life being gazed at by a statue of the president as a barefoot boy. The president’s family is aghast at a decision to depict one of the country’s great heroes in this condescending manner. But as Will notes, Phillip Kennicott, the Washington Posts’ cultural critic, provided the key to understanding this wrongheaded choice.

Kennicott praised the design as innovative because Gehry “has “re-gendered” the vocabulary of memorialization, giving it new life and vitality just at the moment when the old, exhausted “masculine” memorial threatened to make the entire project of remembering great people in the public square seem obsolete.” The critic goes on to say the Eisenhower family’s objections are due to Gehry’s “feminization” of the memorial. Kennicott likes the design specifically because it neuters the man it is supposedly commissioned to honor by cutting a “man of action” down to size into a “more contemplative figure” who will be depicted in the “traditionally feminine passivity of reading.”

This goes beyond an effort to transcend a “heroic” depiction of the man. It is also, as Kennicott helpfully points out, an effort to diminish the memorial’s subject and even to highlight his flaws:

Few great men are absolutely great, without flaws and failings. Although Eisenhower is remembered more fondly now than he was in the 1960s and ’70s, there are still debates about his strategy in the Second World War (was he too cautious, thus prolonging the war?), his role during the McCarthy witch hunts (why didn’t he more publicly confront the congressional Torquemadas?) and his role in foreign adventures (bloody CIA interventions and the doomed Bay of Pigs invasion). The young Eisenhower is both innocent of and yet pregnant with whatever failings history ultimately attributes to his career.

Leaving aside the fact that the Bay of Pigs took place during the Kennedy administration, not that of Eisenhower, this tells us all we need to know about what it wrong about the design and its defenders. While Eisenhower was not perfect as either a general or a president, the same comment can be made of any other great man, including those whose memorials are scattered around Washington. But, unlike the Eisenhower plan, the two most recent additions to the D.C. pantheon — the memorials to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr. — were not treated as an invitation for critics or historical revisionists to rethink their subject’s legacies. Nor should they have been. Instead, that disdainful treatment was reserved for the modest Republican who would deserve his country’s highest honors even if he had not been a successful two-term president.

Eisenhower was, after all, not just a flawed politician who made some good decisions and some bad ones, like many other presidents. His place in history is secured as much if not more so by his key role in the great struggle to save Western civilization during World War Two than his presidency. Eisenhower’s talents were exactly what both our republic and the world needed at a moment when everything hung in the balance. If there is anyone who deserves a heroic statue/memorial on the Mall, it is the low-key man who led the Allied armies on D-Day and ended the Nazi reign of terror.

Given the poor treatment Eisenhower is getting from those in charge of this project, his family must be thinking they would have been better off having no memorial at all. The National Capitol Planning Commission should not only scrap Gehry’s ideas but should also re-think the closed process by which the celebrity artist was chosen and open it up to more competition.

The argument that Gehry’s design should be rushed into production so the dwindling band of World War Two veterans will be alive to see it is a poor one. Subsequent generations need to be given an Eisenhower memorial that will depict his achievements and soldierly virtues without reinterpretation via the bizarre intellectual fashions of our day that demand he be “feminized.”

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