This Monday, the anniversary of D-Day, the National Civic Art Society (NCAS) and the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art (ICA & A) announced the winners of the Eisenhower Memorial Counterproposal Competition. This competition was initiated after one of the most famous modern architects, Frank Gehry, had been selected to design a memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower in Washington, DC.
While most of the architectural press praised this selection, Gehry’s design had its detractors. The members of the NCAS and ICA&A, rather than being satisfied with mere complaints and criticism of Gehry’s uninspiring design, initiated the counterproposal competition to find a suitable alternative.
The sponsors believed it to be a duty to give to Washington, DC, a more fitting place to remember to one of America’s great heroes. More than any other work of architecture, a memorial becomes the setting, stage and scene for our most important civic events.
Indeed, the best and most beautiful, the most serene and the most magnificent, become the backdrop for the most sacred traditions and the most meaningful displays of civic duty.
What American could imagine Martin Luther King’s famous speech being given from any other place than from the grand steps of the Lincoln Memorial? Would the words, “I have a dream” have carried the same magnitude and awe to inspire generations had they been spoken before a bland glass box of a federal building?
It is in our best memorials that the loftiness of the architecture not only provides a fitting setting, but also serves to emphasize the greatest ideals to which we aspire as citizens.
The Eisenhower Memorial which Gehry has proposed, pictured below, emphasizes none of the ideals of one of our nation’s great heroes, but reduces Eisenhower’s accomplishment to the level of the mundane.
Massive unadorned pillars serve not to inspire wonder, but rather to make one feel miniscule and inconsequential. Sheets of metal, strung up like drive-in movie screens between the enormous pillars communicate not the universal ideals of unity, sacrifice and freedom, but rather random moments picked from the President’s life.
In contrast, designs chosen by the NCAS and the ICA&A and created by architects and artisans were chosen because they express through meaningful sculpture, beautiful composition and a deference to the city, as well as the civic virtues that Eisenhower himself exemplified.
The first place winner, Daniel Cook, stated that his winning design, pictured at the top of this post, was designed not as an arch celebrating the victory of a conqueror, but rather an arch of peace. The transition Cook reflects of Eisenhower as a general to Eisenhower as president and citizen evokes memories of Washington as Cincinnatus, the revered leader who laid aside his power and returned to his farm when his work was complete.
Sylvester Bartos and Whitley Esteban’s second place design, pictured right, presented an arch framing the axis of Maryland Avenue, with semicircular colonnades facing the dome of the Capitol, surrounding a figure of Eisenhower. In front of this design one might contemplate the weight of responsibility faced as he pondered the invasion the night before D-Day in 1944.
Each design awarded was classical by design, but each was unique. Some chose to place Eisenhower high atop a pedestal, others placed him in a temple. In each we can see the limitless expressive capability of architecture when the designers cast off the limits of the modernist idiom. What all of the designs had in common was that they created a fitting place to honor and remember a man who exemplifies the best of what America has to offer.
Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of the President, in her remarks at the award ceremony stated that she could we could imagine this becoming a setting that every year future generations would gather to remember, as we did on Monday, the sacrifice of so many brave men on D-Day. That more than just a memorial to one man, that this place could become as the Lincoln Memorial has become, a sacred place to honor the civic virtue which we all aspire.
Below are the winners of the counterproposal competition:
3rd Place (a tie)