Thursday, March 22, 2012

Monumenti in Memoriam:
The Latest DC Memorials

Though sorely tempted, we initially let pass the dedication this past August of the lumpen, Social Realist debacle that is the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC. But now, with the unveiling of Frank Gehry's proposed Eisenhower Memorial, we can no longer resist, as it seems the perfect time to review what's been brewing, monument-wise, inside the Beltway. Unfortunately, nothing good.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial

Pompous and banal in its conception, stiff and ponderous in its execution, and reeking of an "Our Glorious Leader Makes Great Strides for the People" æsthetic that would doubtless have pleased Chairman Mao or Comrade Stalin, the MLK memorial has nothing discernable to do with the persona, eloquence or legacy of the civil-rights leader.

Beyond the embarrassing obviousness of the symbolism (MLK could move mountains! It's in the Bible and his speeches and stuff!), the memorial is constructed of white granite, the pale shade of which could only be found in China—though this begs the question of why a black man's portrait must be sculpted with the whitest granite to be found on earth.

This literal mountain of imported white Chinese granite—appropriately enough in its way—was pneumatic-chiseled by a sculptor imported from China as well. This of course explains why the King memorial looks so preternaturally like the sort of Communist-era monuments that have been vengefully toppled in such great numbers in the past few decades (and seeing as China pretty much owns the US by now anyway, we shouldn't be so surprised by all this, I suppose).

To compound the what-you-can-only-conclude-is-borderline-criminally-willful obtuseness which permeates this project, one of the citations chiseled into the side of the mountain-slice in which the reverend is embedded, à la Han Solo frozen in carbonite from The Empire Strikes Back, is a ham-fisted conflation that King never uttered ("I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness") and which, in Maya Angelou's words, "makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit."

A small recompense: Angelou's crusade has had an impact and the inscription will be re-carved. But don't let them stop there...

In all, pondering the MLK memorial for any length of time generates much the same reaction as pondering Congress for any length of time. Though everything else about it is wrong, it certainly is in the right city.

Frank Gehry's Memorial to President Eisenhower

No, that's not the memorial's official name, though it may as well be. Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Bilbao was among the most poetic and innovative structures of its time, but that time was a quarter-century ago now and this tired bit of bombastic starchitecture is an utter disaster that should be roundly rejected.

First of all, Gehry's project is not a memorial, it's a drive-in theatre—though the pictures don't move and you can't park your car for all the trees and hordes of toddlers in strollers or just taking their first adorable little baby steps, if we are to believe the tiny, cardboard cut-out staffage on the presentation model.

The vast and pointlessly over-scaled postcard images of Eisenhower's life that are the basis of the design show a disturbing lack of creativity or serious thought. Millions have already been spent and tens of millions more have been earmarked to erect this vast, oppressive cage, but all that time, energy and money could be saved—and an equal educational impact be had—by printing the half-dozen images on a nice, glossy fold-out and distributing them for free from an on-site kiosk.

In yesterday's public hearings, Ike's grand-daughters excoriated the design for being overblown and reminiscent of Maoist propaganda posters, and certainly there is—yet again—the strong odor of Social Realism hanging about, but what is most unpardonable about the design is that the huge postcards are simply a facile and expedient solution, a tired Postmodernist cliché, and inexplicably Gehry has renounced his signature poetic curves and gone all formalist on us and the screens are sited and designed with clear, rectilinear precision.

None of this has anything to do with Frank Gehry, so what's going on here? Essentially, he took the idea of the blown-up PoMo postcards and fused it with the contemporary-euro-art-museum-perimeter-screen fetish in a desperate attempt to animate the design with a fading trend.

This bit of architectural cool was popularized by the French architect Jean Nouvel, initially at the Fondation Cartier (1994, above), where the building itself becomes a screen, and later at the Musée du quai Branly (2006, below), where a glass screen-wall replaces the classic French iron perimeter grille. The appropriation's traces are obvious because the grid has heretofore been anathema to Gehry, but Nouvel is its recognized maître.

Gehry here reminds one of Madonna: a past-prime-time trend vampire who, all the more painfully, latches onto the meme just as it turns to rancid cliché. Leon Krier has been in high dudgeon over Gehry's design (there's even a website devoted to loathing it, the conspiratorially named The Truth about the Eisenhower Memorial) but his anti-Modernist polemic entirely misses the real motivation and "inspiration" for what truly went into this mess. Frankly, Krier is plumbing the depths of a puddle here and has produced a critique that says more about Leon Krier and his obsessions than it does about the true nature of Frank Gehry's sad excuse for creativity.

A memorial worthy of the name (the best example in decades upon decades being Maya Lin's remarkable and profoundly moving Vietnam memorial) should capture the import of its subject and transmit that with an emotional and artistic charge: with dignity, innovation and elegance. There is none of that here.

We should also point out that Lin's design was the result of an open competition and that at the time she was just out of design school and totally unknown; the directors of the Eisenhower memorial commission have ensured that the selection process precludes any unknown talents by restricting it to established, vetted firms. Their insular cronyism has resulted in a debacle that they roundly deserve, in heaping platefuls.

Gehry's design is claustrophobic in the extreme and literally boxes in the site. One has to wonder, did anyone have the temerity to ask the 83 year-old éminence grise just who is going to clean all those acres of screens, and how? Or how big those quarter-inch dowels holding up the screens in the model might actually be in real life? Seeing as they stand over six stories tall and look to be roughly 20 feet in diameter? And reek of the worst of 70s design, but on steroids?

Imagine all the bird kills. Imagine the disgruntled neighbors. Imagine standing under one of the trees, right next to the screen wall. Forget about what it will look like if built; imagine what it would look like in a hundred years. Apparently no one has.

So many practical questions—concerns about scale, usability, maintenance, preservation of view corridors and the like—seem simply to have been ignored. No wonder there is a movement afoot to institute a moratorium on building any more monuments in the District—a ban we fully support, until some sort of sanity is restored to Washington (i.e., never). And we haven't even begun to touch upon this design's appropriateness in paying homage to Eisenhower himself. We defer here to the family, who are vociferously trying to stop it.

No surprise really, because this memorial has nothing to do with Eisenhower. If the vast pictures of him weren't there, you would never even guess that it was a memorial, let alone one dedicated to Ike. By the way, if you enter "Ike" into Google, this is what you get:

This is Ike from the Smash Bros. Dojo, whatever that is (besides the obvious Osiris symbolism). Actual images of the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, and of the 34th president of the United States do not appear until well into Google images' third page.

Likewise, except for those ridiculously massive pillars, you'd never think Gehry's memorial project was permanent either.

And with any luck, it won't be.


  1. I hope for designs that I enjoy/appreciate over time. The "King" is doing just the opposite and I'm embarrassed. I fear a repeat in the Eisenhower. Maybe we should just hold on until there is a generation that can do this stuff.

  2. Oh don't get me started on this.......worst design possible from the most overly hyped architect of this AND last century (if you ask me). That area off the mall is already so banal that the hideousness of this won't register much is my only hope.

  3. Gehry, himself, reflects a class of trend vampires that believe visual dissonance to be the ultimate expression of all that is clever and genius. We see it everywhere, especially in the horrid cars that bray out their designers contempt for the automobile. George Orwell saw it coming when ugliness is beautiful and no distinction between ugliness and beauty will be permitted.

    Gehry, and others like him, honestly believe they are on the cutting edge, and if it assaults the conscience, then that is a moral good expressed as art. We have too much cowardice in avant garde circles. Rich busybodies with annoying wives who want desperately to be seen as trendy label mongers. To criticize such "art" might cause one to lose face at the trendy Manhattan parties. People like Gehry feed off this insanity and what we saw in this article is the end result. Just the fact that such eyesores are even proposed at all speaks of a nation that is beyond remedy.

    BTW, don't even compare socialist propaganda art to this trash! There is an intensity and sincerity in the art that is seductive and makes outsiders ponder what it was really like to live in such a world. Starchitects, like Koolhaus, Gehry, and the like, have absolutely NOTHING to offer but the shame of capitalism, which squanders wealth in exchange for cocktail party name-dropping privileges.

  4. Thanks all for your comments; Gehry's project certainly doesn't leave anyone indifferent, to say the least!

    @Terry: there is always talent at any time to call upon, but the (preselected) selection process made sure almost all would be disqualified.