HOBSON’S CHOICE

District of Columbia War Memorial

District of Columbia War Memorial

In the public debate over Frank Gehry’s design for the Eisenhower Memorial, there have been frequent calls to scrap the current design and hold a national design competition, open to all. Again at the recent National Capital Planning Commission meeting that “disapproved” Gehry’s proposal, the claim was made that national competitions are the way that Washington, D.C. memorial designs have always been chosen. Let’s look at the historical record.

Washington Monument: in 1836, public competition won by Robert Mills.
Grant Memorial: design competition won by Henry Merwin Shrady, sculptor, and Edward Pearce Casey, architect.
Lincoln Memorial: an invited two-man competition between John Russell Pope and Henry Bacon, who won.
Jefferson Memorial: no competition, Pope was appointed the architect.
FDR Memorial: in 1960, open architects competition won by  William F. Pederson & Bradford S. Tilney but disapproved by Commission of Fine Arts and Roosevelt family; in 1966, an invited architectural competition of 55 leading architects won by Marcel Breuer but disapproved by CFA; in 1974, open architects competition, 90 entries, won by Lawrence Halprin.
Vietnam Veterans Memorial: open pubic competition (1,421 entries) won by Maya Lin.
Korean War Veterans Memorial: open public competition (540 entries) won by a group of students from Penn State.
World War II Memorial: open public competition (407 entries), won by Friedrich St. Florian.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial: open public competition (900+ entries) won by ROMA Design Group.
Eisenhower Memorial: 44 architects selected to compete using GSA’s Design Excellence Program, and Gehry chosen from among 4 finalists.

It’s a mixed bag. The Lincoln Memorial was the result of a design competition between two hand-picked architects; the Jefferson Memorial had no competition at all. The Washington Memorial did have a national competition, but the final design is really the work of Col. Thomas Lincoln Casey, who was responsible for its construction. And these are the best three memorials. Conversely, the  designers of some of the least compelling memorials—FDR, Korean, WWII, MLK—were chosen through open national competitions. The open competition process was obviously influenced by the Vietnam Memorial, and the hope of uncovering an unknown young designer. Which turns out to be difficult, maybe impossible, to duplicate. One of my favorite memorials on the Mall is the District of Columbia War Memorial which honors DC residents who fell in WWI. The architect, Frederick H. Brooke, was simply given the job.

10 Responses to HOBSON’S CHOICE

  • John Mills? Robert Mills?
    The Commission’s history/legacy is indeed a messy (and I suspect, expensive) one. I would be really interested to look a layer beneath the story of architects’ involvement and find out who has appointed to the NCPC, by whom, during the different periods of what we might call success or failure as judged by the resultant designs. Would the right kind of enlightened design leadership consistently result in more consistently good results? And how would we find that person/people?

    • Witold says:

      Robert Mills of course. I always mix up the actor with the architect.
      The predecessor of NCPC was the National Capital Park Commission, founded in 1924 (Olmsted Jr served on it, so did distinguished architects). NCPC was established in 1952. NCPC deals chiefly with planning issues, esp as regards the L’Enfant plan. Aesthetics is the purview of the Commission of Fine Arts (est in 1910). NCPC includes representatives from Congresss, the City, and federal agencies, as well as presidential appointees. CFA has seven members, none ex officio, all appointed by the presidents, and generally representing the fields of architecture, landscape architecture, and public art. A voluminous history of CFA has just been published and that would answer your questions. NCP{C has not generally weighed in on aesthetic matters, leaving that to CFA, so their voting down the Eisenhower Memorial, which has been granted concept approval by CFA, is unusual.

  • lux et veritas says:

    Mr. RYBCZYNSKI’s points are right on point. To his I would respectfully add several more which he is free to correct or amend., to wit:

    While not memorials several more iconic federal city architectural designs speak to “open competitions”. First the open competition on the White House design won by James Hoban. President/ General Washington knew what he wanted the White House to look like prior to the “competition”. He knew Hoban and sought him out before the competition to impress his architectural ideas on him. Subsequent to the “open competition’s” closure President Washington and his hand picked jury selected Hoban’s (Washington’s) design for the White House. Hardly an “open competition” then or now in the eyes of current critics of the Memorial to Eisenhower.

    Or how about the design of the Nation’s Capitol, which is offered by current critics as an example of an “open competition” worth emulating. President Jefferson in true democratic fashion called for an “open competition”. President Jefferson, who was not shy about his views on architecture was so disgusted by ALL the submissions that he threw them ALL out and designed the Capitol himself. Ironically given current criticism it leaked like a sieve. Hardly a paragon of “open competitions”.

    I find striking irony in the calls for Frank Gehry’s head from a vocal subset of architectural critics who like neither him or his architecture. After all was L’enfant not sacked by Washington and Jefferson for his failure to do it their way?

    THOSE WHO FORGET THE PAST ARE DOOMED TO REPEAT IT.

  • Eric Fazzini says:

    Has anyone asked Stern how he would do the Eisenhower?

  • Sean West Sculley says:

    Ghery’s design should be scraped for good with no recourse for him to resubmit.

    Only those who have worn the uniform of one of the Armed Forces of the USA should be allowed to submit a design.

    That is, the architecture of a memorial to a Warrior is too important to be left in the hands of architects who have not served their country.

    Period.

    • Witold says:

      Frank Gehry did serve in the US Army in the 1950s, so according to your (warped, in my opinion) criteria, he is “eligible.”

  • There has been, for three years, and continues to be, one fitting and proper design for the Eisenhower Memorial on its intended site: that produced by our Firm as an entry in the unfortunately corrupt Competition organized by a highly politicized private, ostensively ‘classical’ organization. The moronic discussion of whether or not a further ‘competition’ might, or might not be the suitable vehicle for the selection of a design, in light of our referenced design — insuperable as a work of enlightened, place-specific and culturally-resonant architecture and urbanism — living and breathing, and ‘on the table’ is tantamount to obscenity.
    Our Plan for this Project, which may be viewed on our website, represents the most significant urban design intervention proposed for Washington, since the drafting of the original L’Enfant Plan. Since its founding, our Capital has been subjected to insults coming at the hand of every adolescent and crude ideology to spew out the pipe of mindless historical succession — salient among these: the obtuse non-relational Downing ‘Picturesque Movement’, the grotesque bad scale of the ‘City Beautiful’ movement embodied in the McMillan Plan, and of course, most latterly, the barbaric ravages of the so-called ‘Modern’ era.
    The Ruiz Plan, history will record, among the din of all the blind, tone-deaf and inept alternatives proposed to date and yet to emerge from whatever hackish mechanism to be arranged, stands, and will stand as the standard of highest quality and ingenuity as well as relevance to its physical place, its cultural context, and its memorialized Subject.

    • Witold says:

      Without commenting on the tone of this letter, it is worth noting that Mr Ruiz’s proposal places a building within the right-of-way of Maryland Avenue, which not only flies in the face of L’Enfant’s plan, but also contravenes the Commemorative Works Act and the National Capital Planning Commission Act.

  • Our tone is appropriate, direct and didactic, and employed in forcefully addressing a most uninformed, inept and crude politico-ideological process that would do violence to the history and character of our Capital.

    Be clear: our exhortations are spoken in passion, toward the defense of noble principles, expressed physically by our Capital, as initially conceived, which underpin our Republic.

    It is a sign of the most utter and grasping moral and intellectual vacuousness to impugn expressed ideas for their ‘tone’.

    It is further a sign of the intellectual calcification, not to say the jaded cynicism that characterizes the ‘deliberative’ process in place here that ‘red herring’ arguments, and questionable ‘formulaic’ formulations are invoked in the place of informed real-place empathic analysis.

    Be further clear: Our Plan places a very small-scaled (in great contrast to the very large scale and the geographic eminence of the Capitol, from where the axes in question emanate) monument as a mediation and effective articulation of the Maryland Avenue Axis. This effect is not entirely dissimilar to the placement of the Lincoln Memorial, during the last century, as an articulation and a mediation, and not strictly-speaking a terminus, of the City’s principal monumental axis — the awe-inspiring ‘infinite’ (and symbolically important) westward vista from the Capitol (lamentably severely marred now by the gathering Crystal City schlock in the manner of ‘La Defense’ — but that is the subject of yet another discussion).

    Lastly, the cultural stakes are quite great in the sophisticated urbanism required in approaching this project — either in Design or in Criticism. Anyone ‘not quite ready for prime time’ ( i.e. lacking the requisite intellectual breadth) and focused on hermetic personal formal predilections would be thoughtful to respectfully reconsider their involvement.

    In its every feature and recommendation, our Plan stands as the standard that any existing or further proposals for this Project will have to approach, and I caution not dare imitate or plagiarize.

    Beyond all the disconcerted barking, elbowing, and aggressive narcissistic defenses of presumed ‘turf’, we hold hope well informed, selfless and responsible scrutiny will prevail– a scrutiny that has eluded us to date.

  • emjayay says:

    I would rank the FDR up with the good ones. Not a monumental monument, but right for FDR who only wanted a desk sized monument, which indeed exists. It tells the story, is a nice metaphor for his multiterm administration, and it’s nice to walk around, including at night. It functions quite differently from most memorials, and in a good way.

    It’s hard to believe the WWII memorial came out of a process similar to the rest. It’s a strikingly mediocre designed by committee appearing mess. There must have been something fundamentally different going on in the process in this case.

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