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. 

One thought on “Is Frank Gehry the Chosen One? Eisenhower vs. Lincoln”

  1. Richard,

    Good parallel and good work! Two comments:

    A. You write that William Purcell was a “believer … in the tenets of the Prairie School.” Correct — but to clarify the point for your readers, none of the Prairie School architects called themselves that. They called themselves Progressive — and were well aware that this was also the name of the leftish political progressives of their day. The name Prairie School was stuck on them in the 1930s — though it was based on an earlier published comment by Frank Lloyd Wright.

    B. I want to give a shout out to Mark Hammons, the single-handed creator of the extremely deep and wide Organica website. Mark proudly carried the banner for Purcell and Elmslie before anyone else. He deserves a great deal of credit.


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