Congress Blog

A way forward for the Eisenhower Memorial

The sixteen years and forty million dollars spent planning a presidential memorial to Dwight Eisenhower in Washington represent more time and money than past memorials took to build. Congress refuses to fund the resulting design, by famed architect Frank Gehry, which has divided public opinion since it was unveiled more than five years ago. President Eisenhower's memorial commission has enlisted major political figures and Hollywood celebrities to build Gehry's design through private donations. Meanwhile lawmakers in Congress investigate the unusual circumstances around the architect's selection and the subsequent skyrocketing of the memorial's budget and compensation to Gehry's firm. Such circumstances have made a popular president's memorial the subject of bitter controversy over its design and cost, in contrast to Eisenhower's own legacy of consensus-building and fiscal prudence. We need a new design process that foregrounds these qualities to pay him proper tribute.

In fact we already have one, in the standard public process for designing national memorials, through competitions that are open to everyone and consider anonymously submitted designs. This selection process guarantees equal opportunity to amateurs and professionals and focuses attention on design ideas rather than designer personalities. For these reasons, and also because they reliably produce both traditional and modernist designs, public competitions are recognized as a fair and practical path to the consensus memorials need to get built. Perhaps this is why we've used them for every memorial designed for the National Mall since 1981, when Maya Lin's anonymous entry won just such a public competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

But the Eisenhower Memorial Commission ignored this tried-and-true public process. It turned instead to a government program that is more often used for federal courthouses, which seeks not design ideas but rather expert designers, who develop a design only after they are selected. The program considers only registered architects, a restriction that caused it to be overturned as undemocratic, and replaced with a public competition, the only other time it was tried for a national memorial, for the World War II Memorial in 1996.

The Eisenhower Memorial Commission unwisely revived this less-than-public selection process under a chairman who as past president of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and a major supporter of the concert hall Gehry designed for the orchestra, has close personal and professional ties to the architect. Congressional investigators found that he promoted Gehry to fellow commissioners before the selection process even began, and that once revived the government program's established selection criteria were changed in a way that favored the architect's selection. Later, as Gehry developed his design, the memorial commission exercised a menu of contract options that increased his firm's compensation nearly 65 percent, far in excess of the industry standard for even the most famous architects. The budget for the memorial itself is now $144 million, on top of the $40 million already spent, more than double an original budget of $55 to $75 million.

Such runaway costs follow directly from an unusual, undemocratic selection process. In choosing Gehry before he settled on a design, the memorial commission closed out any alternatives to whatever he might develop, leaving him free to work without fear his commission could go to someone else if his design proved too controversial or expensive.

Now that it has, the whole project seems stuck. In fact it's merely on the wrong track; the exclusive (and unprecedented) association of one designer with President Eisenhower's memorial is the problem, and it's a problem that has more to do with policies on the memorial commission than with Frank Gehry.

Nevertheless his design is too controversial, and too tainted by a flawed selection process, to represent President Eisenhower. We should use the nearly 20 million public dollars left to the memorial commission from a past Congressional appropriation to find, and perhaps build, a less expensive, more unifying design. An ongoing public competition for the National World War I Memorial cost $650,000 and caps the cost of the winning design at $25 million. A path to building consensus and controlling costs for the Eisenhower Memorial is therefore clear; President Eisenhower's own legacy, focused on these very qualities, demands we return to it.

Roche writes on architecture and urban planning and taught at the University of Miami School of Architecture from 2010 to 2013. He is the spokesman for Right by Ike: Project for a New Eisenhower Memorial.

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