Oh Frank Gehry, can’t you make anyone in D.C. happy?
In designing the Eisenhower Memorial planned for the anonymous plot of land southeast of the Museum of the American Indian, Gehry has proposed three alternatives: One with a circle of columns and blocks cut through by Maryland Avenue, a similar design that diverts traffic around it and creates a friendly public plaza, and something a little different, with 78-foot-high metal “tapestries” that depict Ike’s upbringing in Abilene, Texas. The last one, the Eisenhower Commission‘s preferred alternative, would stand out among D.C.’s collection of weighty commemorations. But it hasn’t been well received by the bodies that decide whether such things move forward or not.
The Commission on Fine Arts reviewed the concept back in May and had some technical issues with the design—would snow obscure the metal mesh?—and followed up later with a letter that recommended dispensing with the tapestry concept altogether. The Department of Education, which occupies the LBJ building directly south of the site, has protested that the tapestries would block views and natural light for its employees. And now the staff of the National Capital Planning Commission, which will formally review the three concepts on Thursday, is out with a decidedly skeptical recommendation as to the viability of tapestries as a design element, however pretty they might appear.
Aesthetically, the issue that the staff have with the 550-foot-wide metal mesh is that it shuts out the surrounding buildings, preventing them from taking part in the framing of the memorial. The design, they comment, “essentially establishes walls that define a self-contained memorial precinct” and will “overshadow the LBJ building and eliminate its changes to participate fully in the definition of this new urban square.” They did praise the tapestries in theory, and recommended that the design team find a way better integrate with the Maryland Avenue viewshed and surrounding buildings. But will Gehry be willing to compromise his vision so drastically? Looks like the 81-year-old architectural legend’s first foray into the nation’s capital might more of a headache than he imagined.