In a recent farewell speech as outgoing Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton made a rather unexpected reference to Frank Gehry, using the architect’s signature slapdash compositions as an analogy for a new approach to foreign relations: “Where once a few strong columns could hold up the weight of the world,” Clinton explained, citing the tenets of Greek classicism, “today we need a dynamic mix of materials and structures.”
Well, it seems that some U.S. lawmakers might resent the use of such a metaphor. A proposed bill floated onto the floor of the House of Representatives this Wednesday outlined the very precise aim of preventing Frank Gehry from designing the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial in Washington D.C. Initiated by Utah representative Rob Bishop, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Completion Act seeks to “reevaluate the current status of the project and find the best way forward toward building greater consensus,” explained Bishop in an official statement, referencing an almost two-year-long debate over the fitness of Gehry’s design.
So what exactly does this desire to "build consensus" entail? If passed, the bill would scrap the current scheme by Gehry — a four-acre collage of woven steel “tapestries,” figurative sculptures, abstract volumes, and landscaping — and launch a new design competition while also eliminating nearly $100 million in future funding, money requested by the Eisenhower Memorial Commission to supplement the $60 million it has received since its formation in 1999. A hearing for the bill has been scheduled for next Tuesday in a House subcommittee chaired by Bishop.
For opponents of Gehry’s design, which include a number of actual Eisenhower family members, the passing of Bishop's act could obviously be seen as a victory. One could somewhat objectively argue that Gehry’s design — which has undergone a few revisions in response to its early criticisms — suffers from an ambiguity of meaning, an inability to make a cohesive statement about the former U.S. president. In light of this, Bishop’s resolve to “get this project right” seems to have a widespread appeal, if that’s the true impetus of the bill.
However, the Gehry critics most moved to action have been those who insinuate not the need for a clearer concept but the need for a more traditional design, one in keeping with the classicist language of D.C.’s most iconic buildings. Case in point: the National Civic Art Society, which endeavors to promote the perpetuation of classical art and challenge “fashionable dogmas that have merely served the cause of ugliness,” as its website states, has been one of the more vocal parties protesting Gehry’s Eisenhower Memorial.
Thus while the proposed abolition of Gehry’s vision might seem to please a range of critics who find fault in the celebrity architect's scheme, it might also perpetuate a dogmatic stylistic hegemony in D.C.’s landmark architecture. The legislation might yield a more conservative memorial, one that appeases the current loudest naysayers, and one that could be even less conducive to compromise than Gehry’s plan, even though it theoretically poses to open the door for a less established architect or a more lucid architectural idea. In the end, if the effort to “build greater consensus” passes Congress, the subsequent design will essentially reflect America’s democracy at work, whether it’s democratic or not.