Is Frank Gehry the Chosen One? Eisenhower vs. Lincoln

The Washington Post ran an article highlighting the conflict over the design of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Monument, including passionate opposition from granddaughter Susan Eisenhower.   The debate has been ongoing since 1999, and the latest design is by architect Frank Gehry.  Yes, that Frank Gehry.  The man who has been called a “Starchitect.”  The architect who deconstructs space and who believes that form need not follow function.  The architect who thinks structures should not reflect universal ideals, but rather can and should be fragmented and full of irregular shapes.  The guy who designed the Weismann Art Museum at the University of Minnesota, a building I have mixed feelings about, but also a building that makes me think every time I drive by:File:Weisman Art Museum.jpg

I think Susan Eisenhower’s thoughts reflect a majority view:  “Children are not impressed by children, they want to be Super Heroes. . . .  My family has repeatedly expressed its desire to see something simple and in keeping with Eisenhower’s character and values. . . .”  Take a look at the gallery for the design here.  In fairness, Gehry’s design is rather subdued.  It has symmetry, and echoes of similar monuments.  But it is still mighty fragmented.  The article also discusses some serious doubts about the openness of the design competition.

I’ve been working on the history of some Prairie School architecture, and the Eisenhower controversy reminded me of a similar controversy over the Lincoln Memorial.  The Prairie School architects believed that form should follow function, and that American architecture should reflect American values.  The Prairie School had their own “starchitect,” Frank Lloyd Wright.  You can read about his reaction to the Lincoln Memorial and the controversy at The Civitas Chronicles.   Just a few weeks ago, I came across the Lincoln Memorial controversy in some correspondence of William Gray Purcell in the Northwest Architectural Archives at the University of Minnesota.

The Lincoln Memorial:
File:Aerial view of Lincoln Memorial - east side EDIT.jpeg

File:Lincoln memorial.jpg

Purcell was a leader and to-the-grave believer not only in the tenets of the Prairie School, but also a Progressive idea that good architecture would save us all (more about Purcell over at Organica).  Purcell and his colleagues despised what they saw as a rote and nearly traitorous use of European forms in the Americas. Neoclassical made them drop their heads and sigh; mindless Beaux-Arts made them apoplectic. 

Purcell refers to the Lincoln Memorial in numerous letters, but his 1912 letter to the editor of the Independent presents his thoughts distilled to short-form.   Purcell says “. . .the system which produced the architectural aberrations in this Lincoln Memorial Competition is not only unable to produce an architect who can design an honest, dignified, optimistic building for any purpose, but it is in fact a powerful and closed corporation, in perfect control of the architectural situation throughout the entire country. . . .”

“It is the opinion of the writer that there is no man living who is capable of producing from his own spirit a building that would be equal to the demands of a memorial to Abraham Lincoln,  –and for the reason that a great Architecture is a social and not an individual matter, and that we will undoubtedly have to live an organic art, as the Greeks did, for several generations before the great Mind will arise who can utter in Architectural form the great heart and spirit of the American People.”   [You can see the letter and other related documents at Organica. Thanks Organica!  The original is in William Gray Purcell Papers (N3), Northwest Architectural Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries.]

Purcell and his colleagues really, really lost the the war. The Prairie School was short lived and never very popular.  WWI killed Purcell-style Progressivism for most people.  The related Modern Sullivanesque “Form follows Function” architecture thrived for awhile, morphed into other styles (like International), but is now is in disfavor and largely disdained.  [Visit Brutalism to see how they committed suicide]. 

The Eisenhower memorial fight has two big dogs:  Folks like the National Civic Art Society, dedicated to “the restoration of the classical tradition to its rightful primacy in our nation’s capital.”  And post-modernists, like Gehry who reject the link between form and function and even have been seen consorting with Beaux-Arts structures.  Purcell and the Prairie School wouldn’t have liked either of them.  On the other hand, Purcell said American architecture would need a few generations, so maybe Gehry is the “great Mind” Purcell references.  Wouldn’t be the first time a forerunner wouldn’t have recognized the chosen one.

Some other things to ponder:

  • The proposed Lincoln Memorial was too Classical for some, the proposed Eisenhower Memorial is too un-Classical for some.
  • The competitions aren’t as competitive as the rhetoric claims (that’s not news). 
  • The issues play out in newspapers.

What do I really think? 

1.  I am amused that Super Heroes have been used to argue against a man who has been criticized as being a “Starchitect.” 

2.  I think Presidential monuments serve to distill complex issues and times into an experience that evokes an emotional response from the visitor. I’m not sure how much innovation is appropriate, but I’m quite sure they aren’t the place for full-blown deconstruction.*  Gehry’s monument is,however, a toned-down post-modern.  That might be a good idea for a structure that needs to work for several generations into the future.

3.  As a nation, we recently purchased some national monuments that do not resound with the public at all.  Caution would be prudent.

Hat tip to @austin_hoya for the Washington Post article on the Eisenhower Monument

Also, be sure to see Frank Gehry on the Simpsons.  Maybe I should have put that link first. . . .

*I love to deconstruct; I once gave a paper at a conference where I deconstructed the work of others, built my own construct, and then deconstructed that, leaving all questions unanswered and all listeners unsatisfied. Audience was confused, but not amused.


Also, thank to Barbara Bezat for catching a silly error I made in an earlier version. 

Feast your Eyes

Isaac: “Jack said a bad word at school today.”
Richard: “That’s not good.”
Isaac:  “He said ‘Fist your Eyes’.  That means punch you in the eyes.”
Richard: “Are you sure he didn’t say ‘Feast your Eyes’?  That’s not bad.”
Isaac [showing the actions]: “Yeah, that’s it.  That’s worse.  That means pull your eyes out and eat them!”
Richard: “I don’t think that’s what it means.”
Isaac: “Yes it does!”

Archaeology of Placer and Hard Rock Mines—Essential Literature

There are four works I use frequently when studying mining sites.  If you work in an area where you might encounter place and hard rock mines, make sure you have these.

Hardesty, Donald L. Mining Archaeology in the American West: A View from the Silver State (Historical Archaeology of the American West). Lincoln, NE: University Of Nebraska Press, 2010.  Hardesty’s work is derived from his experience in studying and documenting mine sites.  The work excels at describing mine sites, including artifacts and features.  If I am wondering about tailing piles, adits, or site layout, I go here.  Hardesty also describes varies mining processes and links them to site archaeology—an essential part of interpretation. The work contains some astute observation about site interpretation and significance.  For cultural resource management projects that must assess significance, Hardesty is invaluable.   I’ll also add as a parenthetical that I think this is a model book.  Rather than endless detail, it is concise, focused and purposeful. 

Meyerriecks, Will. Drills and Mills: Precious Metal Mining and Milling Methods of the Frontier West. W. Meyerriecks, 2003.  Meyerriecks is a clear and well-illustrated guide to the entire process of hard rock mining.  Meyerriecks details what the miners did, and what equipment they used to do it.  The book’s organization and layout make it easy (and a joy) to use.  If you know nothing about mining, I’d say start here.

Sagstetter, Beth, and Bill Sagstetter. The Mining Camps Speak: A New Way to Explore the Ghost Towns of the American West. Colorado: BenchMark Publishing, 1998.  This isn’t an academic work, but it is a useful and accurate work.  The Sagstetter’s have authored what is essential a field guide to mining camps.  The book covers mines, technology, structures, sites and artifacts.  If I’m trying to figure out a site I’ve just wandered into, Sagstetter can get the ideas started.  I also find Sagstetter the most useful of these three for artifact identification.

Twitty, E. Riches to Rust: A Guide to Mining in the Old West. Montrose, CO: Western Reflections Publishing Company, 2002.   Twitty’s richly detailed and illustrated work focuses on the archaeology of mining methods.    There is a good deal of overlap with Meyerriecks, but enough differences that you will want them both.  Twitty’s book is more narrative and complicated than Meyerriecks.    If I find an odd piece of equipment, a bit of a wooden frame, or a concrete pad with mounting bolts, I might go to Meyerriecks first, but I’ll be checking Twitty for sure.  Look carefully at Twitty; there is an astonishing amount of data in that book.  For example, Table 3 (p.307) list air compressor specifications.   For each compressor type, Twitty list the typical foundation footprint, size and material.  2’x6′ rectangular timber foundation?  Why that’s for an upright 2 Cylinder compressor.  I am not a good enough person to deserve this sort of help!

There is, of course, a tremendous literature out there on mining archaeology.  On a pragmatic level, however, I have found that these three books will get me 2/3rds of the way to wherever I am going.