Coalition comments on the proposed Environmental Document for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial

These comments are submitted in response to the scoping for the environmental document to be prepared by the Eisenhower Memorial Commission and the National Park Service for the Eisenhower Memorial in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act and Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act.

Members of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall along with representatives of other nonprofit groups have attended several presentations in recent years for the proposed memorial.  We are thoroughly familiar with the site as it exists today as well as its historic origins.

The environmental document must take into consideration both the historic L’Enfant and McMillan Plans that are the blueprints for Washington DC as well as the Commemorative Works Act by which Congress directed federal agencies to protect those historic concepts in choosing sites and designs for all new memorials.

As we viewed the design concepts recently presented during public meetings, we were dismayed that the so-called alternate designs prepared by the Gehry team were simply variations on the same concept.  This is the kind of approach one might expect in the design development phase of the process, but the process is not yet at that stage.  This is only concept stage review.   We believe that the design team has not met the basic requirements of the NEPA and Section 106 review processes for concept submission that would allow the Eisenhower Commission and NPS to undertake a meaningful, data and science-based evaluation of the proposed concepts and substantive alternative concepts.

The decision to pursue this project as a single source undertaking eliminates the possibility of the public seeing other different approaches, unless the chosen designer fulfills the requirements that are mandated. It is therefore very important to require that the designer make a thorough search of the design possibilities by using alternate concepts so that the public and the reviewing authorities can easily understand the merits of the preferred scheme as well as have distinct alternatives available for comparison.

In addition to taking into consideration Congressional intent in the laws cited above, there are at least five major issues inherent to this prominent site that must be addressed in a set of substantive alternatives:

• How best to maintain the viewshed of Maryland Avenue, and integrate the viewshed into the overall design;

• How to route through traffic on Maryland Avenue by exploring a variety of different configurations;

• How to protect the open space character of the site for pedestrians and workers in surrounding buildings as well as for visitors and residents moving through this area between the Southwest neighborhood and the National Mall;

• How best to integrate the two halves of the site so that they act as a unified property;

• How to commemorate Eisenhower, including how to take advantage of the chosen site’s proximity to the Department of Education, NASA, and other federal agencies associated with the Eisenhower legacy.

The design variations to date do not involve a satisfactory exploration of any of these five problems:

• The viewshed.  The only exploration is of the effect of narrowing the viewshed.  As presented in the three variations, the tall columns, screens, and large trees narrow the viewshed unnecessarily.

• Traffic. Two traffic routings are shown, but there is little imagination shown in further variations that might even enhance the opportunities for commemorative design.

• Site unification.  There are numerous ways for unifying the site, but only one is investigated.  That is the use of the huge columns to define a space. This solution needs much more study. There are numerous other ways to create site unification and a sense of place.

• Open space.  There are a number of ways to accommodate the memorial while also allowing pass-through use of this area by federal workers, local residents, and visitors to and from the nearby National Mall.  Options should be considered that do not fill the site with a kind of “sacred” space that would discourage the urban character of the location.

• Commemoration. The proposal suggests as the major commemorative feature the billboard size tapestry depicting events related to Eisenhower’s life and accomplishments. There must be other ways to do this that are not so over-scaled and that don’t mask the façade of the Education Building (whose association with Eisenhower’s policies was cited as a reason the site was chosen in the first place).

We believe the review bodies should table this project until it meets the full requirements of the NEPA and Section 106 concept stage documentation. Three or more alternate ways of solving the problems are required before a thorough review can be made.  Descriptive drawings, plans, sections, elevations, and views from a number of vantage points are required for each alternate design are required in order for a thorough review to take place.

We attach a recent essay on the Memorial design concept by Washington Post critic Roger Lewis which raises a number of significant issues that we believe should be seriously evaluated as well in the environmental document.

For the National Coalition to Save Our Mall,
Judy Scott Feldman, PhD, Chair
9507 Overlea Drive  Rockville, MD 20850
[email protected]
301-340-3938

ATTACHMENT

The Washington Post

For Frank Gehry’s Eisenhower memorial, less would be more
By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, April 10, 2010; E04

Architect Frank Gehry’s design concept for the Dwight D. Eisenhower National Memorial, while not embodying Gehry’s signature language of complex curved surfaces, does achieve the bigness and boldness that are hallmarks of his work. But pursuing bigness and boldness can lead to bloat, which regrettably appears to be the hallmark of the memorial design.

The designated Eisenhower memorial site is a large open space south of the National Air and Space Museum. Maryland Avenue SW divides the site into two triangular spaces, one now a small public garden and the other an underutilized public plaza in front of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Department of Education Building. Closing the avenue will create an extensive rectangular site bounded by Independence Avenue, 4th and 6th streets, and the Education building.

As in all memorial design, the challenge was to find an appropriate expression of commemoration — in this case, honoring Eisenhower’s historic achievements as a great military leader, university president and president of the United States. But Gehry also faced urban design challenges: an expansive four-acre site, equivalent to almost four football fields; a massive, very popular museum directly across busy Independence Avenue; and a sizable, architecturally undistinguished federal office building stretching across the site’s entire southern edge.

These challenges elicited two questionable design strategies: compete with and match the scale of the large, neighboring edifices and, going a step further, hide the federal office building. This was not easy, since the memorial is not a building.

So Gehry did the next best thing to designing a building. Using tall, monumentally scaled cylindrical columns marching along the site’s north and south edges, and stretching woven metal “tapestries” several stories high between the columns, he created a virtual building in outline. The colonnade and mesh scrim along the south edge of the memorial mask the Education Department building. On the Independence Avenue side, mesh segments span only the pairs of columns adjacent to 4th and 6th streets, allowing views into and out of the memorial site.

The heroically scaled colonnades and mesh scrims boldly frame and contain the memorial, at once an enclosed urban space and a seemingly sacred space. Within the sanctuary will be paved walking surfaces, trees and, in the center, a circular array of stone blocks of diverse size, shape and orientation. Surrounding a vegetated area and pool, the stones will contain carved images and commemorative inscriptions.

The design exploits the dramatic contrast between the immense scale of the colonnades and scrims and the intimate, pedestrian-scale space within. But it raises fundamental questions. In any city, and in Washington in particular, why house a memorial in a new, quasi-enclosed “room” — built at great expense — within a larger urban “room” already framed by existing buildings? And why does this or any other memorial need to be so large and necessitate so much construction?

As we architects often say, it looks overdesigned. The scale and dimensional aspirations of the project are not surprising, given both Gehry’s compositional bent and the tendency to create imposing, expansive memorials in the capital’s monumental core.

Several memorials of recent vintage consume generous amounts of landscape. For example, the artfully hewn Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, stretching along the southwestern edge of the Tidal Basin, is inspiring but physically more extensive than necessary. And the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, with an evocative stone sculpture of King at its center, will occupy a sizable piece of West Potomac Park on the western edge of the Tidal Basin.

It may appear that lots of public property remains on which to build memorials in the heart of the nation’s capital. But if we keep using excessive amounts of land for each new one, eventually we will run out of sites. Where will future generations erect memorials, since surely many more individuals and events will deserve commemoration in centuries to come?

The desire for grand memorials is understandable. But creating an inspiring memorial does not necessitate building something vast, grandiose or bristling with an excess of elements. A simple yet memorable design idea, beautifully uniting landscape and structure, can be very powerful. The Washington Monument, a tall, unadorned obelisk on a low hill, exemplifies potent simplicity. Conversely, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial incises a simple, inscribed wall and walkway within the landscape, an expressive gesture of commemoration that profoundly moves visitors.

Fortunately, the Eisenhower memorial design is preliminary, and there is time and opportunity for Gehry to explore the notion that, for this project, less might be more. Let’s hope that the architect and his client do some serious aesthetic editing.

• Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland. He may be contacted at [email protected]

 

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