Rethink the Eisenhower monument; America needs a Board of Visitors

How many visitors to Louisville, Ky., on a quick tour would look to the tallest buildings and among them see the Empire State Building but with a Dome of the Rock oddly placed on top? Or booking through Harrisonburg, Va., on I-81 in the James Madison University vicinity, rush past a knockoff of the Potola? Just coincidence, I expect. But I brought it up to one good-natured architect who has been considered among the top five these past 50 years when he was designing a law school for a college I worked at and his building seemed a ringer for a specific Italian monastery of the 12th century. It brought a mischievous smile and a quick aside to his wife, rapid fast whisperings behind the hand in Italian that I wasn’t intended to understand.

The thing is that architecture, like Madonna at the Super Bowl or Janet Jackson, is a simplified and uncomplicated public performance. It often comes with a subtext or secret agenda of the artist and reflects the narrow vision of his own times and generations; the big firms also come with a PR gang geared to the corporate types who will make the decisions and very many of these “Mad Men” types don’t have a archetypal Don Draper on hand to tell when they are getting snookered. One hundred years later when a smart seventh grader visits the Washington Mall with her class, she might sense that the great original buildings of the Smithsonian look much like the Kremlin, but she might be reluctant to bring it up.

It has come up again, second time this past year; monuments to honor perhaps the two most important men of the American century: Eisenhower, who built it, and Martin Luther King Jr., who fulfilled its most essential karma. Both were mistakenly and poorly presented. The King memorial was saved by the bell when Maya Angelou suddenly showed up to say comments on the bottom made Dr. King looked like a twit. Likewise, the Eisenhower memorial, which presents Gen. Eisenhower as a castoff character from “The Wizard of Oz,” may be saved by the bell by Susan Eisenhower.

Her comments on Ike’s memorial from her website:

“One of the oldest ploys in the strategist’s handbook is to create side skirmishes of little value, except as a way to avoid or delay fully engaging the ‘enemy’ or ‘adversary’ in real battle. This may be why staff members of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission have spent little time arguing the merits of the Gehry design. Instead, it seems, they are more interested in igniting mini-battles over non-issues. These side-offensives, however, threaten to turn into circular firing squads … In a rebuttal to my Q&A with the Washingtonian’s Carol Joynt, Dan Feil, chief architect for the commission, was off-base on a number of important points. If his assertions go un-countered, they could become ‘facts.’ ”

The Eisenhower project should be revisited, but this should not happen every time, especially with individuals like King and Eisenhower, possibly more fundamental to the American condition in our time than any other. America needs a Council of Elders or a Board of Visitors or something like what the Canadian Senate once was: a group of varied individuals to find a steady keel — poets, business people, hockey players, priests and monks, chefs, generals, etc. — to defend against the provincialism of the times and the geist of the detached art culture.

There need to be other voices present at the beginning.