Eisenhower memorial stuff

You might have heard that the Eisenhower Memorial is reviled by everyone from Congress to the people who chose Frank Gehry to design it. A closer look shows it’s in much better straits. The real danger is that people buy into the deceptive hype of its opponents. At the February 20th meeting of the Commission of Fine Arts, the most outspoken […]

You might have heard that the Eisenhower Memorial is reviled by everyone from Congress to the people who chose Frank Gehry to design it. A closer look shows it’s in much better straits. The real danger is that people buy into the deceptive hype of its opponents.

At the February 20th meeting of the Commission of Fine Arts, the most outspoken opponent of the memorial, Justin Shubow, stood up to speak on behalf of the National Civic Art Society. NCAS advocates for classical architecture in Washington, D.C., and as an architect living in the city, I was initially enthusiastic to hear an emphatic voice in the city’s milquetoast discourse. What happened at the meeting changed my attitude.

Shubow structured his testimony around comments by two city commissioners, planner Alex Kreieger and sculptor Teresita Fernandez. Shubow said the commissioners, particularly Fernandez, had serious concerns about how Gehry planned to use flat surfaces in his memorial (in the form of the metal scrim tapestries) to create depth and its theatrical composition. These reservations, Shobow argued, were proof that the architect's design had lost its supporters, and that it was, thus, time to “call it curtains” for the memorial. 

Fernandez bristled at her words being explained back to her. Given the floor, she stated that she did not think flatness or theatricality were bad at all. All she had wanted was that those effects enhanced the overall experience of a visitor. She wasn’t sure that a flat backdrop was doing what the Gehry team said it did.  

As she summed up her comments, she paused, “A cynicism in using people’s comments is very dangerous. It’s very important that we use each other’s quotes in the context they were delivered.” 

Commissioner Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk called the public comments inappropriate. She emphasized that the commission would not discuss what was off the agenda and already approved: Frank Gehry’s overall design for the project. This procedural drama might not seem like much, but for the CFA, it's as close as it gets to fireworks.

The commissioners had discovered what too many people had already realized: Shubow abuses the words of others. He makes it look like they said things they never intended and don’t believe. Many people I contacted had the same story: Shubow had twisted their words to mean something very different. He left off very important context and surrounded it with speculation.  

Unlike a simple lie, these misquotes can’t be quickly disproven. Nothing opponents say is exactly untrue; only in the aggregate do they paint a different picture. It requires twice as much explanation to say why the claim is wrong. That explanation, in turn, risks further misrepresentation. That’s why everyone thinks the memorial plan is in such bad shape. 

After the February meeting, I had to look deeper. In his testimony, Shubow mentioned Alex Krieger’s criticism of the two tapestry panels that flank the central complex. It’s worth deconstructing what Krieger, how Shubow used it, and how it was echoed around the world. 

In a recent example, Shubow wrote in a February 3rd editorial in Roll Call:

Alex Krieger, a professor of urban design at Harvard, judged the plan according to the standards of a “traditional first-semester architecture exercise.” He emphatically said, “This would fail.” Krieger complained that each iteration of the design has made it worse. He accused the side tapestries, a major part of the design, of “flapping in the breeze” and asked Gehry to remove them. Other panelists seconded his remarks, including Chairman Rusty Powell, director of the National Gallery of Art.

Did a Harvard professor really say that Frank Gehry’s whole memorial would fail a freshman assignment? Let’s look at what Krieger actually said on November 21st, 2013: 

But, of course, I do have a comment to make about the side panels, not so much the side panels but the fact that each iteration–and you have talked about many iterations of the design–each iteration made the case of enclosure less compelling.

You know, there is a kind of traditional first-semester architectural exercise where you are given, like, three columns and four little pieces of wall and say, "define an enclosure." This would fail. It would fail. The panels are flapping in the breeze right now.

So they don't enclose the space. That is kind of an imaginary idea. In the meantime, yes, I would repeat my comments. I am sorry if it was kind of quoted so extensively.

In context, Krieger is referring only to Gehry’s "failure" to shrink the large site through an enclosure of woven stainless steel screens. He then clarified his point to say he wasn’t opposed to the screens themselves: 

By the way, I love the large tapestry, assuming it doesn't have any technical flaws, as a fabulous background for the entire composition of the park, landscape as well as now the particular very careful display of the kind of statuary, that core of the memorial.

Depressingly, Krieger knew his comments would be misused, so he had begun his remarks with a long preamble: 

I want to make sure that my criticism has nothing to do–nothing to do nor can be used as a way to say, gee, it should be a classical-inspired memorial.  My comments have nothing to do with trying to move it towards to kind of a traditional classical aesthetic.

Now, Shubow had quoted Krieger’s July comments “flapping in the breeze” his November testimony, which is why Krieger repeatedly clarified the line. But even the context of that use, the Krieger was attempting to refine the design, not reject it. 

And the representation of an aspect of Eisenhower with the background of a tapestry seems actually quite appropriate as well. As these things have collapsed towards the center which I do think is a very good idea – -making more of a park, a site of the grounds of a memorial – – it seems that these now are left a little bit flapping in the breeze and that is the first impression, I don’t think is one of humility. 

He later tempered his remarks, clarifying, "This is not an attack on the scale of this or the tapestries."

In both instances, Krieger offered serious criticism about the experience of the two side tapestries, making it explicitly clear that he liked the concept of the tapestry and the memorial overall. He was interested in refining one aspect of the design. Commissioner Powell and Freelon’s remarks echoed some concerns about size. Not enough to garner a formal position, just enough to ask Gehry Partners to return. 

Vigorous criticism is part of the architectural profession. Vigorous public dialogue is part of democracy. There’s nothing wrong with strong condemnation. That doesn’t mean scrapping the memorial. That doesn’t mean telling people what they really meant. 

But the abuse of language identified by Fernandez is forcing the commission members to temper their language and begin statements of the mildest criticism with paragraph-long preambles. The decontextualization has had a chilling effect on the Commissioners, who have become increasingly hesitant to give Gehry design guidance. 

Their commentary for the past few months was unequivocally one of refinement, not rejection. As commissioner Powell said at the end of the November meeting: "There are wonderful moments and I think it still needs, as my colleagues have said, to address aspects of it.”

Opponents have also tried to claim that the members of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission dislike the design they have spent four years developing. Other than Bruce Cole, a NCAS board member who was recently appointed by the President to the commission on the advice of Senator Mitch McConnell, they don’t seem to. Before Cole came on board, the EMC voted unanimously to approve Gehry’s 2013 design. 

To make it seem like there’s dissent, they quote a letter from the late Senator Daniel Inouye to memorial chairman Rocco Siciliano. Inouye was Vice Chairman of the commission from 2001 until his death in 2012. In several recent editorials, Shubow and an associate claim in that Inouye was abandoning the design after Susan Eisenhower after she compared the tapestries to concentration camp fences before Congress. Writes Roche:

Siciliano has tirelessly defended Gehry’s design for the memorial, even rebuffing his vice chairman, the late Sen. Daniel Inouye, when Inouye cautioned against staying with Gehry’s design over the objections of the Eisenhower family. 

Inouye did write a letter. It was very hard to find as someone not familiar with congress. Addressed to Memorial Commission Chairmant Rocco Siciliano Inouye expresses doubts about whether it would be possible to complete the memorial without the support of the Eisenhower family. It praises the design, describes Inouye’s meeting with the Eisenhower sisters, and says that the commission intends to continue. The letter concludes:

Given the continued opposition with the Eisenhower family, I question whether we can ever resolve the differences between the Commission and the Eisenhower family, and whether it would be in our best interest to continue to move forward. In my view, to ignore the family’s opposition would only compound the mistrust and strained relationship the family has against the Commission and, in particular, with the Commissions staff. It could even slow our internal processes.

I want to give you all a report of my meeting with Susan and Anne Eisenhower. I am not sure what the best approach should be at this point in time and welcome any thoughts you might have to this dilemma. 

I read Inouye’s letter as a realistic concern over political challenges, not a moral rebuke to respect the Eisenhower family. There’s no evidence that Siciliano brushed aside the Medal of Honor winner’s concerns. In fact, the commission seems to have spent the rest of 2012 trying to win back the Eisenhowers, requiring Gehry to address their concerns through major design revisions. 

In his editorials, Roche alleges that Siciliano rigged the design and has dominated the commission. These claims echo ones Shubow made in a 153-page report for the National Civic Arts Society. The report cobbles together out-of-context quotes that make Gehry seem like a power-mad nihilist bent on manifesting metaphysical anarchy in our built environment. Only through Siciliano’s intervention, the report claims, would man like Gehry win. 

To prove this, the NCAS report extensively quotes a dialogue between Shubow and Ed Feiner, a creator of the GSA Design Excellence Program. When I contacted him for comment, the architect wanted to make the circumstances of their interaction clear: Shubow represented himself as a student in a Georgetown University class that Feiner was addressing. 

Feiner found Shubow’s questions aggressive and did not know he was being recorded until the report was published. "Verbatim, it’s pretty close, but it was not meant to be ambiguous. There is no conspiracy theory,” he said. "I think what they really wanted was a remarkable designer. They were not as open to a full crapshoot.”

The last bit of doom opponents are hyping is that Gehry’s friends won’t defend the design. In a March 10th Roll Call editorial, Shubow claims Washington Post Architecture critic Philip Kennicott thinks the columns "might read as Soviet.” He includes this quote as one piece of proof that not even modernist critics hate the memorial. 

Unfortunately, Shubow was quoting Kennicott's first impressions on the competition-winning model from 2010, before the tapestries were completely redesigned, repositioned, and the columns reduced in diameter. 

When I talked to Kennicott said he’d come around to them after studying the design more closely. He’s defended those same columns in the paper multiple times since the article Shubow quotes. In a twitter exchange  Kennicott called the quotation “tendentious” and Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight called the event “typically mendacious.” 

What Shubow, Roche, and the NCAS have done with these misquotes is create the impression that the memorial is much more imperiled than it actually is. [Interesting but repetitive] Because it is so hated, even by modernists, they argue, there’s no choice but to start over. The architect, they say, should be chosen from a nationwide, open contest, as was the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. There’s another twist there. 

Roche and Shubow both frequently invoke Maya Lin’s selection in 1981 for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as a desirable outcome. Curiously, the National Civic Art Society have both expressed a dislike for the memorial. For example, NCAS board member Bruce Cole sat on an NCAS-sponsored panel at the American Enterprise Institute that found the Vietnam the inflection point where memorial design went wrong

Similarly, Shubow's 153-page NCAS report invokes the “anyone can have a chance,” ethos of 1981, the report disparages the concept that won in the footnotes. Lin's memorial, reads the report, is ambiguous and therefore nihilistic. The individual experience and emphasis on grief, he says, is inferior to the previous era’s love of clear, positive monuments, "when America took pride in all of the wars it fought.” 

Have we become a nation of amnesiacs? The Vietnam memorial was almost obliterated by political meddling over its cultural implications  Without the intervention of Ronald Reagan and CFA chairman J. Carter Brown that Maya Lin’s design survived to be ranked the #10 favorite building in America. 

NCAS and its network have produced so much material that it’s impossible to check every assertion and quotation. Ultimately, the details will come out; no one I contacted felt Shubow’s interpreted their words fairly. Shubow claims that Gehry is a nihilist who creates architecture for a meaningless world. But no one seems to have done more violence to the truth than Shubow himself.

I met with Shubow for several hours to get a better sense of his opinions. He’s very passionate about architecture, which I respect. What I don’t understand is why he’s embraced these cynical tactics.  If the memorial is so self-evidently bad, why is it necessary to exaggerate? 

All of these misquotes, the harangues, and the attacks on people’s integrity would be noise were it not for Bruce Cole’s position on the Eisenhower Memorial Commission. Cole needs to clarify whether he knows about the misleading tactics, and whether he endorses the views in the NCAS report. Depending on his answer, he will need to either resign from the National Civic Arts Society or the Eisenhower Memorial Commission. I believe that in our memorial landscape there’s room for architecture that’s rooted in tradition. I do not believe that deceptive soundbites should trump the vigorous debate and meticulous review that have shaped Washington. What’s going on here is no way to build a democracy. 

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