April 2, 2009

Gehry Memorial also to include nod to Eisenhower

Ok, so that's not the headline that the Post used to announce this morning the winner of the "competition" to design a national memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower. But given Frank Gehry's "signature" style and propensity to attract attention to himself via his buildings, it might well have been. Today the Eisenhower Memorial commision solidified its previous decision to embrace fashionable names in architecture over beautiful architecture that would be properly deferential to it's subject and not to its builder.

Frank Gehry (Kathy Willens - AP)

The architecture of Frank Gehry is the singular and personal style of Gehry, and as his "signature" or "trademark" it exalts him the architect. Anywhere you go that there is a building by him, people exclaim "we have a Gehry," like it were any other work of art, like Picasso or a Michelangelo.

Many places, especially in Europe, are quite proud however of older buildings by famous architects like Michelangelo and others. These buildings might be fantastically beautiful and new, but even after seeing them as different and wonderful, they still fit in with the towns they are in. In fact many "signature" buildings by great architects in history have to be pointed out to you. This is because as part of a city, architecture has to be a "good neighbor" and not draw too much attention to itself.

Michelangelo and the "starchitects" of his day may be just as well known as the Frank Gehry's of our day, but today "starchitects" build with little deference to the city around them. Today's stars build objects such that their building is a solitary work of art, of genius incarnate. One could as Leon Krier said this week, put all the great Modernist architecture in a park somewhere, and in this park the buildings would make just as much sense as they do in their own environs. A Bernini or Michelangelo building put on a tabula raza would make no sense, as each of them is designed as part of a harmony in a city.

A memorial is however a little different as it's harmony is not just with the city, but also with the subject to be memorialized. The architect in some sense takes a back seat to the memorial. Lets put it this way, nobody comes to see "a Bacon" or "a Daniel Chester French" when we go to see the Lincoln Memorial, but we go to see and remember a great President. A proper memorial gives deference to its subject. Sadly, modernist architects cannot do this, neither by the means of their art nor by their own character. The modernist needs to express novelty and newness and personal artistic genius far too much to be able to defer to his subject.
An Eisenhower Memorial to Gehry will likely be so overbearingly Gehry, that history will likely forget the man memorialized before the man who built it.

A Modest Proposal
Now, I criticize a lot here on this blog, but now it is time for action. I propose a true competition for a counter proposal for this memorial. I am now working to raise money for a CASH prize for the best design for a counter proposal for this memorial. I propose that it be open to young artists and architects under 40 from anywhere in the country. The prize would be small, likely $400 - $500 but the subject is small and would take little time to produce.

I would propose that the design not necessarily be classical, but certainly I feel that classical would be best to express the necessary gravitas and reverence necessary for a memorial. All designs will be considered rationally from all designers.

What do you think? Would you be willing to contribute a design? I will be formulating a program for this competition so your feedback will be taken into account.


Anonymous said...

You may end up being right about a Gehry-designed memorial. But let me ask this: If Gehry comes up with a design that honors Ike and respects its urban context would you be willing to give it a fair shot (even though it is unlikely to be neo-classical)?

One of the challenges here in DC is that the tendency toward neo-classicism among preservation groups and the Commission of Fine Arts has resulted in lots of truly mediocre (I'm being kind) buildings that use a classical design vocabulary.

Erik Bootsma said...

I won't be one to say that Gehry's buildings are boring, but I come to expect more of the same from him. That being said, yeah I'll be the first to hope he pulls it off, but I have serious doubts.

You raise a good point about mediocre classicism. I would much prefer a bold and expressive classical style that was used in the 1930's by Cret and others. The Justice Dept, the Federal Reserve and the old State Department are great examples. Today we get the Reagan building as "classical" and its a disappointent to say the least.

I'm glad to see the Guardian across the pond echoing my sentiments:


Greg Shue said...

I'd like to contribute a design if the competition happens.

Anonymous said...

Yet another vehicle/project for Gehry to promote Gehry.

Samuel John Lima said...

I would also be VERY interested in entering a counter proposal. I already designed one for Burnham Memorial competition. In that case, the final 3 designs are not open to the public, but I wanted to be prepared for when they are unveiled (I doubt they will be adequate memorials to Burnham).

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