The rules of an architecture competition can affect which design wins and even how it is received. That’s why opponents of the controversial Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial fault not just Frank Gehry’s design but the format of the competition that led to its selection. And it may help explain why proponents of a World War I memorial on the Mall have chosen to follow a very different set of rules.
The Eisenhower competition was open only to licensed architects, landscape architects, and engineers, who were invited to submit portfolios. By contrast, the World War I memorial competition, held this summer, was open to anyone over 18, and entrants were required to submit designs. The Eisenhower competition drew 44 entries, while the World War I Memorial competition garnered 350. “Certainly we were aware of what went on with Eisenhower, and we wanted to open the field as wide as possible,” said Edwin Fountain, the vice chairman of the World War I Centennial Commission, which was authorized by Congress last year to build a memorial on a 1.8-acre site on Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House.
However, the Commission may have stepped into another minefield. The site of the memorial is Pershing Park, which was designed by the modernist landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg (with plantings by the influential firm Oehme, van Sweden & Associates, subjects of an upcoming retrospective at the National Building Museum). Ironically, it is dedicated to John J. Pershing, the Army general who led the American Expeditionary Forces to victory over Germany in World War I.
The park opened in 1981 and has suffered from inadequate maintenance. It stands to be demolished so that the World War I memorial can take its place. Though the competitors were allowed to incorporate the existing park into their designs, a glance at the 350 entries suggests that almost none of them did so. Now preservationists, including Charles Birnbaum of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, are demanding that the National Park Service protect, rather than eliminate, the modernist landscape.
Friedberg, 83, was outraged when he learned that the park might be destroyed, which he termed “a dictatorial move by people who don’t understand the meaning of a public open space.” Calling it “one of my best works,” and a “living room on Pennsylvania Avenue,” he says Pershing Park was emblematic of a time when landscape architects were inventing new urban typologies, and needs to be preserved not only for the public but also for the profession. “You can't teach landscape architecture with just photos and words,” he says.
He adds, “The honorable thing would have been to come to me first.” He says he might have found a way to accommodate a memorial without destroying the existing park. After all, the park already “expresses what we fought for in World War I—which was the ability to use free and open space without fear. That’s what contemporary urban spaces seek to do.”
Fountain, of the World War I Centennial Commission, seemed perplexed when asked if the Friedberg-designed garden should be preserved. “I’m aware that some people hold that view. I don’t happen to share it. My view is that it’s a 35-year-old failed park that has significant drawbacks. We’ll go through all the necessary reviews. But Congress has authorized us to make alterations to the site, so that’s our starting premise.” He adds: “If we are advised to pay deference to the existing park, then we will.”
Fountain announced the memorial competition just last May. Seven jurors (including landscape preservationist Ethan Carr, architecture critic Benjamin Forgey, former architecture school dean Harry G. Robinson, and AECOM principal Allison Williams) have reviewed the entries, and Fountain expects three to five finalists to be announced by the end of next week. Each finalist will be given $25,000 for design development, with a final selection to be made in January. The plan, Fountain says, is for the memorial to be completed by November 11, 2018, the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I.
The procedures chosen by Fountain could increase likelihood of the World War I memorial taking a classical form, according to several observers. Justin Shubow, president of the Washington-based National Civic Art Society, says that, given what he believes is the public’s preference for traditional architecture, “A democratic competition that casts its net broadly and provides for public comments is more likely to result in a classical memorial” than is a competition limited to established architects.
Shubow’s support for a traditional monument is unsurprising, given his vocal opposition to the Eisenhower Memorial. “Fighting the Ike memorial has been one of my main passions,” says Shubow. He says the Eisenhower competition excluded professionals without significant portfolios, as well as painters and sculptors, who are more likely than architects to work in traditional veins. In addition, he says, the brief seemed to favor modernism, stating, “Eisenhower Square is an opportunity to explore new avenues in memorialization” and, “No language currently exists for a 21st century memorial.”
Fountain, who is the general counsel of the American Battle Monuments Commission, says he doesn’t favor one style of design over another. “If having an open competition makes it more likely that we get a classical design, that’s fine,” he says, “but that’s not why we did it.” Whatever the outcome of the competition, “by providing more visibility and opportunity for public engagement than may have been the case with the Eisenhower, people will at least understand how we got to the chosen design.”
All 350 entries to the World War I memorial competition have been posted online, and Fountain said the decision-making period has been adjusted to give the judges time to receive and consider public comments. Of the entries, about 25 could be considered classical, according to Shubow. Among his favorites, he wrote in Forbes, is Remembrance and Honor, featuring an empty sarcophagus set below a crown raised high on slender, unadorned columns. That design was also a favorite of critic John Massengale, who praised it for being “classical” and yet still “innovative and inventive.”
To lovers of classical design, the demise of a Friedberg park may be a bonus.