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Roche: Time to Start Over on the Eisenhower Memorial

Today President Barack Obama was ceremonially sworn in for a second term. The date also marks the 60th anniversary of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s first inauguration.

Recent consensus among historians puts Ike in the first rank of U.S. presidents, though Congress reached this conclusion more than a decade ago, when it voted to build a national memorial honoring him in Washington, D.C. But the design that has finally emerged is so controversial it may not be built.

Designed by architect Frank Gehry, it is currently stalled in the approval process and faces opposition from the Eisenhower family, World War II veterans and members of Congress. Even if this design is built, it will likely remain a subject of controversy and thus a poor tribute to Eisenhower. These circumstances suggest it may be time to start over.

It wouldn’t be the first time a national memorial has gone back to the drawing board. The Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial was redesigned twice when it failed to earn the approval of the Roosevelt family and the Commission of Fine Arts. The commission charged with building the World War II Memorial had to start over when its attempt to find a designer through a less-than-public process was deemed undemocratic and inappropriate. Rethinking controversial memorials is not unusual because people understand that objects of contention are unlikely to become the unifying national symbols we want memorials to be.

One member of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission has already opened the door to reconsidering the current design. The late Democratic Sen. Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, who was the commission’s vice chairman, wrote in a letter to his fellow commissioners this past summer that “given the continued opposition with the Eisenhower family, I question whether we can ever resolve the differences … and whether it would be in our best interest to continue to move forward.”

Without a redesign, it will also be difficult to redress the concerns that have stalled the current proposal in the approval process. Critics have cast doubt on the viability of its central elements, three cable-hung, eight-story-tall metal screens, which both Gehry and his critics describe as daringly experimental. Questions remain about how these will be built and maintained, and whether they will endure over time. That is a problem for the federal agencies that are required by law to certify that national memorials use durable and permanent materials. The National Capital Planning Commission has delayed reviewing the current design since the summer and won’t say when it might consider it.

The use of experimental elements also appears to have driven up costs. Originally budgeted at $55 million to $75 million, or a little more than the memorials to Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson would cost if they were built today, the Eisenhower Memorial is now expected to cost $142 million and counting, 80 percent of which will be borne by taxpayers.

Practical questions of permanence and cost have a common cause in a selection process that gave us no alternatives to a controversial design. The Eisenhower Memorial Commission selected its designer before he developed a proposal, from a short list of established architects. As a result, Gehry never faced the possibility that the commission could go to someone else if his proposal turned out to be unbuildable or too expensive. He was free to follow his vision wherever it might lead.

The flaws in this selection process are now obvious, and we should revisit it. We might look to the public design competitions that are customary for national memorials and that produced four of the last five memorials on the National Mall, and all three of those to Sept. 11. Public competitions are open to everyone; judges choose anonymously submitted designs, not designers. Competitions also produce viable alternatives to unworkable winning designs and can enforce cost and durability requirements through selection criteria.

Most importantly, a public competition to redesign this memorial would establish a clear path to the consensus that has eluded it so far. Without that consensus, we cannot expect to obtain a unifying outcome, as the man we are honoring well understood. Eisenhower’s military and political achievements were also coordinated group efforts. Nothing less could produce the Allied victory in Europe or the Interstate Highway System. Similarly, nothing less than an inclusive design process can likely produce a broadly acceptable Eisenhower Memorial. Beyond any particular style or design, that is our common goal, and to meet it we should make a fresh start.

Sam Roche is a writer and a lecturer at the University of Miami School of Architecture. He is the spokesman for Right by Ike: Project for a New Eisenhower Memorial.

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