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Back and Forth Among Eisenhower Memorial Designers, Regulators

The most recent assessment of the troubled Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial, a project nearly 15 years in the making, points to positive progress on the design — with plenty of room for improvement.

According to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, architect Frank Gehry’s latest submission improves the landscaping but still needs more refinement on the placement of trees and configuration of pedestrian pathways. In a Feb. 27 letter, the CFA says the revised design, “while less ambitious conceptually, would create a more coherent urban space.”

The Eisenhower Memorial Commission’s executive staff responded, saying it was “gratified” by the review and looking forward to continued collaboration with the CFA, one of three congressionally authorized commissions that must approve plans for the 4-acre square at the intersection of Maryland and Independence avenues Southwest.

But one member of the commission still has his doubts that Gehry’s vision for the memorial will ever come to fruition. “I thought the Gehry team gave a frivolous response to serious questions about fundamental design flaw raised at the last CFA meeting,” said Bruce Cole, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities who was appointed to the EMC by President Barack Obama. “All the problems remain.”

Next up will be a review of the memorial’s commemorative features, including sculptures depicting Eisenhower as a young Kansan, president and military hero, and the large colonnades draped with stainless steel tapestry — elements of the Gehry plan that have proved most controversial with the Eisenhower family and the project’s architectural critics, including Cole.

Members of the Eisenhower family publicly attacked the EMC over Gehry’s original conception of Ike as a young boy, arguing that the design didn’t appropriately reflect the president’s legacy. Revisions were made to address their complaints — aging the boy to a young man and giving his political and military achievements more prominence — but the family maintained its objections to the “scope and scale of the metal scrims” and said they could not support a design that used them.

Though the CFA approved the memorial design concept in 2011 and 2013, it, too, has suggested eliminating the tapestries out of concern that their immense size and prominent placement might be inconsistent with Eisenhower’s characteristic humility.

In the Feb. 27 letter, the CFA reiterated issues with the “frontality and theatricality” of the design. Those qualities are “not inherently problematic,” the commission writes, but “must be executed in a way that reinforces the symbolic meaning of the memorial as well as the dynamic experience of the visitor.”

Further backlash against the tapestries has come from the National Capital Planning Commission, another of the federal agencies that needs to OK the design. The NCPC complained that Gehry’s design blocks vantages of the Capitol along Maryland Avenue. In September, the commission declined to give preliminary approval to the design, citing concerns about the materials, and asked for more information on the tapestries’ engineering.

In early February, Gehry’s team submitted more technical information about materials testing. In a letter to the NCPC, the architects defend the durability of stainless steel. Both the Air Force Memorial and the Korean War Veterans Memorial used similar material in their construction.

The NCPC anticipates reviewing the Eisenhower Memorial project during its April 3 meeting. Even if the design elements secure approval from the NCPC and the CFA, project funding will be a challenge.

“People can talk about all the trees that they want,” Cole said, but appropriations are the biggest obstacle right now.

Interior appropriators included a line in the fiscal 2014 omnibus funding bill urging the EMC to work with the Eisenhower family and other parties “as partners in the planning and design process” and cut the budget. The bill zeroed out construction funding, halved the commission’s operating budget and requested a report on private fundraising efforts.

According to recent reports, the EMC has about $22 million in its coffers for construction of the $142 million memorial. The commission still hopes the memorial to the commander of the Allied forces will be completed in 2017, the 72nd anniversary of the end of World War II.

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