April 19, 2012
Have you heard about Frank Gehry’s design for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial? You may have read about it in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, or any number of conservative media outlets. (You may even have seen my articles about it in The Architect’s Newspaper.)
It has been called monstrous and innovative, a monument to Gehry’s ego and a fitting tribute to a humble war hero and president. But one thing that both its detractors and champions seem to agree on: the site is just too damned big.
Located where Maryland and Independence Avenues meet in downtown D.C., the planned memorial site is four acres, roughly the size of four football fields. Gehry had no hand in selecting or defining it. The National Capital Planning Commission identified it years ago as suitable for a memorial, and then another federal body, the National Capital Memorial Advisory Commission, approved it specifically for the Ike memorial in 2005.
Gehry didn’t come on the scene until 2009, when he beat out Rogers Marvel, Peter Walker, and Krueck & Sexton for the plum job (or so it must have seemed back then).
Should Gehry have reined himself in–made do with one or two acres instead of four? Even the Washington Post’s Roger Lewis, a vocal critic of Gehry’s proposal, has conceded that that idea is not very realistic (scroll down to 12:28 in this transcript of The Kojo Nnamdi Show). Give an architect a site, and he’s going to produce a design for it–all of it.
I stopped by last weekend and took some photos. It doesn’t feel as vast as I’d expected, partly because Maryland Avenue bisects it on the diagonal (it’ll be closed off when the new memorial is built). But the internal road makes the “square” feel all the more disjointed. The main attraction is the Department of Education Plaza, so forlorn and dysfunctional that it’s been inducted into the Project for Public Spaces’ Hall of Shame.
The site does have two redeeming smaller features: a Capital Bikeshare station and a well-tended community garden.
It’ll be a shame to lose the garden to the sweep of Gehry’s design. But bikes and flowers don’t make a place Amsterdam. The tract could use some love, and a new memorial park should help revive it.
Four acres, by the way, is the same size as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.