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An insult to Ike

The present controversy over the proposed Eisenhower National Memorial centers on the relationship between the meaning and significance of Dwight David Eisenhower's service to the nation and architect Frank Gehry's scheme to commemorate that service. Does the design fulfill the requirements and standards of monumental civic art? Does it, in a seemly manner, recognize and honor the achievements of General Eisenhower as supreme commander of the Allied Forces in Europe in World War II and as president of the United States from 1953 to 1961?

A monument is a reminder of past acts and events in the life of a community deemed worthy of commemoration for the civic virtue and moral edification of posterity. Memorialization is intended to resist historical relativism. A true and beautiful monument is a reminder of principles of justice and right, practically demonstrated in the historical acts of individual human beings that transcend historical contextualization and narrative detail.

A memorial succeeds or fails according to the ability of the designer to express in symbolic form the character, integrity and moral identity of the individual whose deeds and words warrant lasting recognition. The standard for excellence in such a work is its creator's comprehension of a fully realized understanding of the honored individual. This takes a certain kind of genius, one that recognizes and permits the memorialized subject to manifest his authority in coherent and understandable symbolic forms.

In the original design, Eisenhower was to be depicted as a Kansas farm boy perched on a ledge or plank. The revised design has Eisenhower's central depiction as a young cadet. The original and revised design both have 80-foot-tall cylinders and metal scrims surrounding a 4-acre site just adjacent to the National Mall. What is apparently intended as a wholesome expression of heartland values in truth trivializes the man into childhood or young adult innocence.

The design offers little insight into the reason and cause of Eisenhower's historic achievement as military commander and constitutional chief executive. The soldier-statesman is reduced to a figure of hapless anonymity, a perception not likely to be effaced by the words of speeches inscribed in stone or the addition of massive sculptures of the general-president in action.

The attempt to justify Mr. Gehry's outlandish design in terms of Eisenhower's openness to change in 20th century America is to misunderstand the mind of both architect and subject. At bottom, a threshold failure to understand the historical significance of one of the nation's greatest soldier-statesmen vitiates the proposed memorial. Indeed, Mr. Gehry's proposal rudely disdains sound historical judgment and the conventions of civic architecture in America.

There are good reasons why classical forms so long served as a cultural constant and are not abandoned even today. This is not to rule out modern forms in art, literature and architecture. The tyranny of time — the tendency to judge the propriety and authenticity of works of art in genealogical terms — is an intellectual error to be resisted.

The issue here is not one of competing architectural styles, at least not in superficial, sensationalistic terms. Leon Krier is right in observing that construction of the Gehry Eisenhower proposal would not violate the integrity of Washington architecture in some new way, but simply add postmodernist insult to longstanding modernist injury.

On the other hand, contextualism poses a more serious moral and philosophical threat to the American tradition of memorialization. Recognition of time, place and circumstance is an essential element in historical thinking. The intellectual conceit of postmodernism is that it deconstructs the living past that informs present experience for an imaginary future. In this instance, the twisted and distended forms of the scrims are used to make an appearance of reality, trivializing the standards of memorialization in favor of cultural caprice and whimsy.

Truthful commemoration originates in real, individual facts of past experience, the meaning and effect of which continue in the present. From the welter of discrete and discordant facts, the historical-minded memorialist makes choices (judgments) that require synthesis and evaluation to the end of advancing an intended purpose or ideal.

The question is whether there is truth in the synthesis of the real and the ideal. Is the appearance of the memorial congruent with reality? Does the work as it presents itself evince or comprehend the individual facts and experience in which the primary reality consists? Preeminent in the foreground of Eisenhower's life are achievements of historic dimension in the horizon of world politics. The Kansas or West Point phases of his life form a background of events and experience. The Eisenhower family seems to recognize this and is united in its opposition to the design.

The sense of misapprehension, if not incomprehension, permeating Mr. Gehry's plan is not allayed by identification of the subject as a West Point cadet who symbolizes the innocence of America. The design's gaudy and gigantic forms belie the monumental purpose of the occasion, disclosing the architect's designing mind as incompatible with past and present reality.

A happy resolution would allow Mr. Gehry's proposal Eisenhower Memorial to be admired and enjoyed as one of many curious and far-fetched visions never executed.

Herman Belz is a Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Maryland. He was appointed to the National Council of the Humanities in 2005.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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