In recent weeks, the Eisenhower Memorial Commission backed down from holding a secret, closed-door vote to forge ahead with what has become a very controversial Eisenhower Memorial. It also delayed seeking approval from the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) and U.S. Fine Arts Commission, which oversee changes to Washington's monumental core, perhaps in response to the public statements of Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Interior, and Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, both of whom serve on the NCPC. Theirs are the newest voices in a growing chorus of critics that includes five other members of Congress, prominent architects and historians, and the Eisenhower family. Though it may have been scuttled, the commission's latest attempt to press onward against growing opposition is typical of a process that so far has been unusually opaque and undemocratic.
That fact has been obscured by a debate focused on design issues, specifically architect Frank Gehry's decision to emphasize his subject's Kansas roots. Such issues are secondary, however, to Mr. Gehry's selection through an unusual and inappropriate process.
By established tradition, our most important public buildings and memorials are designed with public participation, through competitions that are open to all Americans and judged on merit. This tradition began at the founding of our republic, with the United States Capitol, the White House and the Washington Monument, and it extends to four of the five memorials built around the Mall over the last 30 years, and all three of the national September 11th memorials. Public design competitions reflect and reinforce our democratic political process.
The Eisenhower Memorial Commission, however, rejected this public tradition in favor of a "closed competition," which considered only registered architects and heavily favored experienced designers with established reputations. This selection process has been described by the Commission as typical, which it is for complex government buildings like courthouses that arguably require relevant prior experience. But it is highly unusual for national memorials, whose power depends not on their designer's related experience but rather on the potency of a specific idea.
More often than not the right idea presents itself amidst a wide range of choices. The open competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial drew 1,421 anonymously submitted entries. The closed competition for the Eisenhower Memorial, on the other hand, drew only 44 registered architects, of whom only seven were asked to put forward "design visions" (which stopped well short of actual designs). The Vietnam Veterans Memorial committee unanimously chose a design by the 21-year-old architecture student Maya Lin, citing its simplicity, beauty and emotional resonance. The Eisenhower Memorial Commission chose the most famous architect working today, citing his reputation and design experience.
Nor is this the first time the Commission's members have been involved with Frank Gehry. Its chairman, Rocco Siciliano, was president of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and a member of the building committee that selected Gehry to design the Walt Disney Concert Hall. According to the Commission's minutes, Siciliano talked about finding an architect of Gehry's stature three times between 2001 and 2006, a full two years before the competition got underway, and talked about the project with Gehry himself during this period. The architect who ran the Commission's closed competition has stated publicly that his client, the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, wanted a particular outcome and viewed alternatives to this outcome as risks to be minimized. These facts call into question the integrity of this process.
Limited or even fundamental revisions of the current design are irrelevant where the integrity and fairness of that process is itself in question. To restore the public's faith in this project, the Eisenhower Memorial Commission should begin again with the proven public design competition it mistakenly rejected. Current and future Frank Gehrys and Maya Lins should apply.