After a five-hour hearing yesterday, the National Capital Planning Commission decided not to approve the current design for the Eisenhower Memorial. Although the commissioners praised various elements of the design, they found that the size and location of the 80-foot metal tapestries unacceptably disrupted key viewsheds and divided the site too starkly.
The “disapproval” does not mean a restart. Congressman Darrell Issa, who holds a seat on the commission as chairman of the House Oversight Committee, made a rare personal appearance. (NCPC formally includes multiple Congressional chairmen and Cabinet secretaries, but most of the time, staff from those committees and agencies actually go to the meeting.)
Issa pushed for NCPC to have the design team back every other month until they get the memorial approved, a motion which passed 7 to 3. Issa explicitly emphasized that the decision today was not a rejection.
NCPC voted to accept the staff’s recommendations, meaning their interpretations of the design principles are no longer up for debate. The memorial cannot visually disrupt the 160-foot Maryland Avenue right of way. Any structures must be 50 feet or more from Independence Avenue. And the design can’t divide the space into multiple precincts.
On the other hand, NCPC rejected calls from the Committee of 100 to retain the vehicular roadway on Maryland Avenue as a twin of Pennsylvania Avenue. The memorial will cut off one block of Maryland Avenue. It’s not clear if the staff’s strict interpretation of the L’Enfant Plan viewshed applies to other projects, such as the DC streetcar.
Public and commissioners had many objections
Just over half of the public comments disapproved of some aspect of the design, for different reasons.
Robert Miller, a mayoral appointee One of the commissioners said he didn’t care about the intrusion to Independence Avenue, but cared a great deal about how the memorial intruded into the Maryland Avenue viewshed.
John Hart, the presidential appointee from Maryland, said he admired the tapestries, but found the size of the columns unacceptable. Issa felt that without representations of Eisenhower’s life, the tapestries lost their original appeal. He and Department of Defense representative Bradley Provancha asked for more content about Eisenhower’s domestic achievements.
The commissioners that have already worked on the project, the National Park Service’s Peter May and Mina Wright from the General Services Administration, were its principal defenders. They challenged the process, the interpretation of the design principles, and political involvement. NPS is set to own the memorial, while GSA will manage the construction.
May and Wright both spoke out about the many erroneous claims made during testimony, for and against. Wright specifically asked the EMC staff architect to correct some facts. Peter May said that if the accusations of flimsiness about the tapestries were true, the Park Service would not have approved the memorial.
In the strangest moment of the day, Illinois Congressman Aaron Schock eloquently condemned a version of the memorial that has been obsolete since at least May 2013.
What happens next?
There is no doubt that the tapestries, as we’ve seen them so far, will not reappear. They may shrink, or they may disappear, leaving the memorial core as the most prominent element. I think that the core tableau has become the strongest element of the design, and can survive the loss of the tapestries.
There is also a strong possibility that architect Frank Gehry will walk off the project. That does not necessarily mean that the current scheme will leave with him. Under the contract, the Memorial Commission owns the design, which is 95% complete. Given the political climate at the NCPC meeting, if the architect left, it’s likely they would continue to alter the design without Gehry Partners.
Taking control of the design away from the designer has a long history in Washington. The most notable example is right across the street. The National Museum of the American Indian fired architect Douglas Cardinal in a financial dispute, but the final design is clearly his.
The final possibility is that the memorial commission will scrap the design. Longtime critics of the memorial have proposed selecting a new designer in a competition. Given the repeated insistence that the design process end soon, it seems unlikely enough people would be willing to risk another extended design process.
Long processes are not uncommon to the history of memorial designs. The FDR memorial went through four years of design review, just to wait 17 years for funding. The challenge will be trying to find conceptual clarity and design integrity amid the increasingly complex pressure.
Correction: Robert Miller has posted a comment saying he was not the one who worried about the Maryland Avenue viewshed; his main objection is with the columns. We have removed Miller’s name from that comment in the article.