The most recent development in what has become one of the most regrettable slow-motion disasters in the history of Washington’s fine arts bureaucracy—and that’s saying something—is that at the latest hearing of the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), influential Republican Congressman Darrell Issa (Calif.) announced he would support Frank Gehry’s atrocious design for the Eisenhower memorial.
Or so the news reports said. The Washington Post: Issa "voiced his support" for Gehry’s plan. Roll Call: Issa is "ready to move forward." Journalists are engaged in a battle against complexity, and always hunting for a clear lead, and it is true that in the midst of several long, complicated, amusing, and—frankly—extremely confusing comments, Issa said that he did not want to "go back to square one." Indeed, he appeared to want to go ahead with the current plan, in some fashion.
But his proposal for how the plan ought to proceed was bizarre. The Gehry design consists of several elements, including a park at the intersection of Independence and Maryland avenues in Southwest D.C., some statuary of Eisenhower in the park, and—here’s where it gets interesting—an 80-foot-tall metallic tapestry that stretches the length of the Department of Education building’s vast façade, depicting wintry scenes of a Kansas-like tundra. There are also a couple of 80-foot-tall columns. Just standing there. On the edge of the park.
Before Issa got around to "voicing his support," members of the NCPC took turns subtly mocking the design. One said that the columns reminded her of the final scenes of the Planet of the Apes. (This is apt.) There seemed, at one point in the discussion, to be a general consensus that the columns could be interpreted as an ironic, postmodern tribute to Eisenhower’s interstate freeway system. The commissioners did not mean this as a compliment.
At various points, many of them—and many of those of us in the audience—were laughing out loud about elements of the design. If Frank Gehry’s objective was to bring some comedy to the typically dry proceedings of Washington officialdom, he has at least succeeded in that.
Issa himself said that the scenes depicted on the metal tapestry (did I mention that it is 80 feet tall?) remind him of Kazakhstan, a point made by other critics of the design. In his remarks, Issa seemed to be trying to position himself as the Great Compromiser, a sort of Henry Clay of the National Mall. His plan: proceed with construction in phases. Build the park first, then the statues, then the controversial parts—which is to say, the ugliest parts, which almost no one except Gehry’s firm and their supporters on the Eisenhower Memorial Commission think are attractive or appropriate. Raise funds for each phase separately, such that D.C. will at least get a park out of the debacle, even if no one wants to fund the Planet of the Apes tribute.
So Issa’s "support" was heavily qualified—so qualified, that it was possible to walk away thinking he would be quite happy for Gehry’s name to be taken off the project and for most of the memorial never to be built.
There are a number of problems with Issa’s proposal. For one, it is illegal. The law on such matters clearly says that all the funds for the project must be in the bank before construction can begin. Congress could change the law, of course, or issue a waiver for this particular project, but considering the toxic reputation of the memorial, stoked by a blistering report on the Eisenhower Memorial Commission’s tremendous waste and mismanagement released earlier this year, this seems unlikely. Issa’s influence in getting such a waiver issued would be key, but Issa is about to be term-limited out of his position as chairman of the Government Oversight Committee, and thus about to lose his seat on the NCPC, and his official role in the planning process.
Then, even if Congress did change the law, they still need to provide appropriations for a design that the Eisenhower family doesn’t want, that Republican legislators are uncomfortable with, and that Democratic legislators don’t much care about one way or the other, considering that Eisenhower was, after all, a Republican. And why would major corporate or private donors contribute their money to something so controversial when they can put their money toward any project they choose?
Issa seemed convinced that going back to "square one" would take more time than moving forward. But that is not at all clear. He also, more defensibly, seemed committed to doing something about the sad, lonely, urban armpit that the memorial site is today. The best part about the tapestry, for Issa, is that it would hide the "Stalinist" (Issa’s word) Department of Education building.
But if this design somehow miraculously goes forward, and the eight-story tall metal tapestry of Kansas-as-wintry-nightmare gets built: What are we going to build one day to hide it?