Difficult Architecture

Frank Gehry presenting his design for the Eisenhower Memorial

I can’t stop thinking about this because it’s such a mess.

This weekend, I came across a sharply written essay by Leon Krier about the embattled design of the Eisenhower Memorial in Washington D.C. The memorial design is from the office of Frank Gehry, certainly no stranger to controversy, and when I first read the essay I thought it was pretty damning. Krier eloquently undermines the framework for Gehry’s approach to the memorial, citing the public’s (and Eisenhower’s) dislike of modern architecture and concluding that Gehry’s work “seems ‘innovative’ only to the ignorant.” Burn.

After reading the essay again, Krier’s argument bothers me. It’s difficult to defend Gehry when I think the Eisenhower Memorial is not his best work, nor is it evolving to become better, but Krier’s argument has some problems. To start, I don’t think that Gehry necessarily has a “distaste of a classical Washington, D.C.” just because he doesn’t emulate a neoclassical approach to buildings. One of my favorite painters is Hieronymus Bosch, but I don’t think every painting should resemble his panels that are half a millenium old and I don’t make holiday cards that appear to be cut-and-pasted from The Garden of Earthly Delights. So I must dislike Bosch, right?

Nor do I think that it is apt to say that “the remnants of the World Trade Center were eerily reminiscent of Gehry’s style.” It’s an inappropriate comparison.

It is confusing to read in one paragraph about the 99% of Americans who prefer classically-conceived houses, and in the next read that only ignorant people think Gehry’s work is innovative. Even if most Americans prefer not to live in Gehry’s work, or anything that looks like it, plenty of us think he is innovative. Does that mean ignorant people like classical architecture? Oddly, Krier tries to tarnish Gehry’s monument by declaring that Modernism has been “brain-dead for half a century.” If modernism has been brain-dead for only fifty years, then classical architecture surely has been brain-dead for much longer.

Finally, while some of Krier’s opinons are gratuitous, they aren’t free. Krier’s essay is part of a political machine larger than Krier, fueled by dollars from an “investment manager” who has distributed the essay through a PR firm to try and stop Gehry’s project from moving forward. The hullabaloo surrounding Gehry’s project has become the most exhausting puppet show to watch, and I don’t think Eisenhower would have watched it.

February 21, 2012 / By