Everyone, meet George F. Will. He’s a syndicated right-wing columnist at the Washington Post (although at the rate things are going, maybe not for much longer) and the author of this recent gem, a jaw-dropping exhibition of architectural ignorance and general idiocy. The full breakdown after the break.
So let’s pick this thing apart. But first, context: Will writes about Frank Gehry’s proposal for a Dwight Eisenhower memorial in Washington, DC, a project that has recently drawn ire from many, including Eisenhower’s family, the untalented neo-traditionalist architect Leon Krier and conservative pundit David Frum. Now Will is jumping on the anti-Gehry bandwagon:
Two coming developments, one dismal and one excellent, pertain to America’s memory of a great man. One of several oversight panels soon will consider a proposed memorial to Dwight Eisenhower. The proposal is an exhibitionistic triumph of theory over function — more a monument to its creator, Frank Gehry, practitioner of architectural flamboyance, than to the most underrated president…
Filling four acres across Independence Avenue from the National Mall, the memorial will have a colonnade of huge limestone-clad columns from which will hang 80-foot stainless-steel mesh “tapestries” depicting images evocative of Eisenhower’s Kansas youth. And almost as an afterthought, there will be a statue of Eisenhower — as a boy.
The gist of the criticism is, as you may have guessed, that Gehry’s buildings are all about him, and not functional. How silly. It’s true that Gehry’s buildings are expressionistic, theoretical and wild. I’ll even go so far as to say that a few of his works rely on recycled wild forms over legitimately thoughtful design. But the vast majority of Gehry’s work, including this in fact quite subdued memorial, is not that way at all. Rather, Gehry’s buildings challenge the viewer to engage with the ideas of a building in highly interesting ways. They force us to confront and rethink the age-old conception of architecture as a background foil to life. And they do so beautifully, particularly in the ways the form and function interact.
Philip Kennicott, The Post’s cultural critic, says that the statue suggests Eisenhower “both innocent of and yet pregnant with whatever failings history ultimately attributes to his career.”
Failings? A memorial is not an exhaustive assessment, it is a celebration of a preponderance of greatness.
Kennicott praises Gehry’s project because it allows visitors “space to form their own assessment of Eisenhower’s legacy.” But memorials are not seminars, they are reminders that a person esteemed by the nation lived and is worth learning more about.
What a maddeningly narrow conception of architecture this George Will has. Of course a good memorial of the 21st century should do more than blindly praise those we deem ‘great.’ The gift of modernism was its lasting lesson that buildings, and all art, can express more than craft; they can express ideas. Gehry’s plan for a monument does just that: it expresses ideas, not just about its subject but about the very act of remembering him.
“[Eisenhower’s] memory should not be buried beneath a grandiose memorial that contributes only to the worsening clutter on and around the Mall,” Will concludes. I agree about the worsening clutter, but that is the fault of appalling monuments to worshipful, middlebrow conceptions of the famous (I’m thinking of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial that opened this summer), and to fix it, we need a strong path towards more legitimate design.
For decades, the world’s most famous architects have given Washington weak works, perhaps because the city’s grandiose nature forces those architects to play into its straitjacketed look and stilted feel, perhaps because it’s just very difficult to navigate the putrid political pall that hangs over every decision made in the city, perhaps because it’s just very hard to design a building in the presence of such great works as the White House, U.S. Capitol and Lincoln and Vietnam Memorials. Is Gehry’s monument perfect? Not by a long shot. I have my own misgivings about it. But they are reasoned and founded in a love of exploring the theory and practice of architecture, not based on a reactionary fear of the intellectually challenging or radically new.