At its monthly meeting on September 4, the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) heard an update on Frank Gehry’s embattled design for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, D.C. Craig Webb of Gehry Partners presented a revised design with significant differences from the one the commission rejected, by a vote of 7 to 3, back in April. Two of the three metal tapestries that formed Gehry’s most distinctive architectural move are gone. There are now eight columns defining the four-acre site instead of 10, and the one at the northwest corner has been moved back from Maryland Avenue, in response to the commission’s complaint that it obstructed the view to the U.S. Capitol.
Acknowledging that Gehry’s changes are substantial, some members of the commission signaled that they are ready to move forward with the new design—although as commissioner Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) noted, the changes won’t satisfy those who oppose the core concept, and funding for the $144 million project remains a major hurdle. “I’m prepared to support it,” Issa said, adding, “I believe our support would still face a number of challenges that would delay it.”
Back in April, the commission found that Gehry’s design did not meet three of its seven design principles, which are intended to preserve the integrity of Pierre L’Enfant’s plan for Washington. Gehry Partners hopes its revisions will overcome the NCPC’s specific objections. In order to free up the view toward the Capitol, the architects have widened the Maryland Avenue vista from 95 to 135 feet. Removing the smaller east and west tapestries will allow the adjacent buildings to better define the site, they argue. And the offending northwest column is now set back within the plane of an adjacent building’s facade, not jutting out from it, as before.
The changes are significant enough that after Webb’s presentation, Issa suggested the earlier design might have been stronger aesthetically and wondered if Gehry himself liked the new one, to which Webb replied, “I know that he supports [it].” And the revisions threw up fresh doubts for some commissioners. One, Ellen McCarthy, head of D.C.’s planning office, said the two north columns seemed “vestigial” now that they are no longer holding the tapestries, and that they reminded her “of the latter scenes of Planet of the Apes.” Still, a number of commission members signaled they were inclined to support the design.
Issa said he wanted to get moving, and that the design is about as good as it’s going to get. He recounted meeting with Gehry in person and finding “a man who is flying all over the world, building phenomenal designs—ones I probably wouldn’t want to live in—but that the world will admire … I think we lose something if we continue to say, ‘Change it, change it.’” Issa also raised the possibility of staging the work so that construction might begin as early as next year while fundraising continues.
Expediting the memorial in this way would require action by Congress. And given a recent Congressional report that lambasted the project as “a five-star folly,” as well as the fierce opposition to Gehry’s design from Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT)—who wants to scrap it altogether and start again—and from the Eisenhower family, getting Congress to take action may be a long shot.