Top 10 Reasons that Frank Gehry’s Eisenhower Memorial Design is Unacceptable

10. It will come to be known “The Gehry” instead of “The Eisenhower.”

9. It pales in comparison to all the other Generals’ Memorials in Washington.

8. It pales in comparison to all the other Presidents’ Memorials in Washington.

7. It is not a memorial. It is an experience place.

6. People don’t “get it.”

5. It is not presidential.

4. It is not handsome.

3. It is not inspiring.

2. It does not serve the memory of Dwight D. Eisenhower.

1. President Eisenhower would hate it.

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‘Off With Their Heads!’ But Gently

Written and contributed by David Brussat 


Providence Journal, May 21, 2009

PRINCE CHARLES addressed the Royal Institute of British Architects in softer words on its 175th anniversary last week than the carbuncles he hurled at RIBA and modern architecture at its 150th a quarter of a century ago. Speculation was rampant for weeks whether he’d be sweet, purring over the need for a sustainable way of building, or tough yet again, as suggested by his recent attempt to kill a big project in London by one of RIBA’s favorites, the modernist Sir Richard Rogers.

So it was hardly surprising that after the speech last Tuesday evening, the passage considered most newsworthy by the architectural press was this: “I am sorry if I somehow left the faintest impression that I wished to kick-start some kind of ‘style war’ between classicists and modernists. . . .”


Then he deconstructed this “apology” by describing the modernists’ calculatedly false twist on what the style war is all about: “. . . that I somehow wanted to drag the world back to the 18th century. All I asked for was room to be given to traditional approaches to architecture and urbanism.”

Perhaps Charles began with an apology because he really wanted his audience to listen. Fiery rhetoric certainly had not brought about “all [he] asked for.” Since 1984, the modernists have given “traditional approaches” no room and no quarter. So he hurled no carbuncles this time, merely thunderbolts in the style of philosophy. Charles is said to write his own speeches. If so, he is one of modernity’s most misunderestimated thinkers. The stiletto subtlety of this speech left modern architects with no place to hide. No prince or potentate ever used a more civil tone to cry, “Off with their heads!”

Here he begins killing them softly with his song:

“Modernism largely rejected the influence of nature on design. It preferred abstract thinking to contact with the patterns and organic ordering of nature. Indeed, the exploiting of abstract concepts soon became the hallmark of modernist architecture. The problem for us today is that this approach now lies at the heart of our perception of the world.

“In so many areas,” he continued, “the only serious goals seem to be greater efficiency, inducing ever more economic growth, and increasing profits. Not to achieve these goals is to be marked down as a failure. The trouble is, these goals were only ever going to be possible if the apparent clutter and inefficiency of traditional thinking was swept away. It was only ever going to be possible if . . . the inner world of humanity — our intuition, our instinct — was ignored, or over-ridden.”

The Prince of Wales goes on for a while in this philosophical vein, and not until he’s well along does he deliver the coup de grâce. It cuts to the bone in a way that everyone in the world will understand:

“The crisis in the banking and financial sector — devastating though its consequences will be for some — has at least brought to light something of the short-termist, unsustainable, and experimental nature of the way many professionals now operate in the world; a kind of surpassing cleverness in the devising of products and systems that no one really understands. At a time when, believe it or not, we are hearing calls for a return to old-fashioned, traditional banking virtues, might these calls not apply equally to . . . our built environment?”

In short, modern architecture is the visible manifestation of all that is wrong with the world.

He refuses to compromise. He will not agree to agree, not even where he and the modernists come closest to agreement. He did address what they now claim to be their overriding concern. But the gap between his and their approach to sustainability is as vast as the gap between nature and gadgetry:

“We see this way of thinking only too clearly in those flashy new buildings where just by adding a windmill, some solar panels, or other such ‘bling’ to a high-rise glass tower it is considered to make everything ‘green.’” He proposes instead the Natural House, designed by his Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment. It offers sustainability via such familiar modes as “the movement of air, obviating the need for air-conditioning, and the clever placing of verandas or porticos. [I]t remains, however, recognizably a house. It doesn’t wear its ‘green-ness’ as if it was the latest piece of haute couture.”

Prince Charles, bless him, could not in the end resist poking his audience with a very embarrassing question: “How many Pritzker Prize winners are not living in beautiful classical homes? . . . Surely architects flock in such numbers to live in these lovely old houses — many from the 18th century, often in the last remaining conservation areas of our towns and cities that haven’t yet been destroyed, because, deep down, they do respond to the natural patterns and rhythms I have been talking about, and feel more comfortable in such harmonious surroundings — even though, presumably, they don’t all feel the need to wear togas to do so!”

For the full text of the Prince’s RIBA speech please click here.

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Fun with Adolf and Architecture


Written and contributed by David Brussat

Providence Journal, February 12, 2009

In last Friday’s letter to the editor “Hope for change of architecture writer,” about my Jan. 22 column “Hope for change we can look at,” architect George Burman, of Bristol, wrote that my “call for a government-directed return to traditional architecture is very misplaced. This is the same stylistic instruction issued by both Hitler and Stalin.”

The idea is that Hitler and Stalin’s use of traditional architecture left a stain of evil on architectural tradition. Well, did it? Of course not. No more than a wolf in sheep’s clothing makes a wool sweater evil. But in the spirit of Joseph Goebbels, modern architects have browbeaten traditional architecture with this Big Lie for decades. And so I thank George Burman for the opportunity to offer a reply.

Hitler did not order a “return” to traditional architecture. It had been in common use throughout Europe for centuries when Hitler took over. Much the same with Stalin. Although modernism was huffing and puffing at the door, Hitler had no reason to supplant classicism with the upstart. He sought to cloak his evil in the timeless civility that classicism represents. Hitler instructed his architect, Albert Speer, to jack up the size of Nazi classicism to impress the world with his Third Reich of a thousand years. He even had Speer look into how to design Nazi monuments so that after a thousand and one years, they’d look as venerable as the ruins of ancient Rome.

In an odd twist of fate, Hitler embraced a classicism that was already in the process of compromise with the utilitarian themes emerging in modernism. Hitler’s architecture featured a classicism of line and proportion but of reduced ornament. The result was somewhere between Beaux Arts and Art Deco. This was true not only of Speer’s Germania — Berlin redesigned in the gigantism of Hitler’s dreams — but in FDR’s Works Progress Administration post offices and other New Deal architecture of the ’30s.

The Bauhaus school under Walter Gropius pushed a variety of modernist tendencies in the Weimar years before the rise of the Nazis, who considered the Bauhaus decadent and leftist. An unappreciative Hitler closed it down in 1934. Gropius fled to America, where he was installed as the head of architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. He remained there from 1938 until 1952.

Gropius, Mies van der Rohe and other Bauhaus refugees brought to America a flair for propaganda. Taking advantage of their hosts’ sympathy for the underdog and their weakness for fashionable European imports, they spread modernism with the same lame ideas that landed on this page Friday in Burman’s letter. In kicking the modernists out of Germany, in other words, Hitler did them a big favor. They flourished on our shores.

Hitler and Nazi Germany never fell under the modernist spell, and neither did Josef Stalin. But the Soviet Union and Communist China have certainly made room for plenty of modernist architecture since then. Traditional architects see a lot to deplore in modern architecture, but they do not blame modern architects for the regimes that hatch evil from within modernism’s blank and sinister walls.

The Chinese employed modernist Rem Koolhaas to design their propaganda headquarters, completed last month. It looks like a pair of legs stomping on the people. Koolhaas is occasionally criticized for accepting a commission from tyrants and for designing a building of obvious symbolic brutality, where speech and Google are suppressed. But this has not hurt his reputation among his fellow modern architects.

Displacing blame for evil from its perpetrators to objects or beings innocent of evil makes no sense. It is not only illogical but unjust. So Hitler liked traditional buildings. He also liked dogs, and yet cat people don’t blame dog people for Hitler, even though Hitler may well have chosen his German Shepherd, Blondi, for the breed’s wolf-like qualities (the name Adolf means wolf). Eva Braun is said to have hated Blondi and kicked her under the dinner table.

Sensible people make nothing of these historical tidbits today. We see nothing wrong with wanting to protect animals, even though, notwithstanding Eva, the Nazis were big on that, too. Hitler developed the Volkswagen and the Autobahn. Today’s Americans perceive no Nazi taint on cars and highways. Some sort of intuitive mental Darwinism pushes us to reject totally ridiculous ideas. The fashion industry has failed to sucker American women into its totally ridiculous dresses. Alas, our corporate, academic and institutional elites have been easy marks for totally ridiculous modern architecture.

Except, that is, for homes we choose ourselves — which remain the bastion of tradition. So I was not really surprised to see a couple of rather lovely traditional houses among the clichés of corporate modernism that illustrate the work of George Burman’s firm on its Web site. Yet his letter states: “Good contemporary architecture should express the ideals and aspirations of our time, which traditional architecture cannot.” So you’d think a traditional house would be the last thing he’d design.

Ah, hypocrisy! Thy name is Architect!

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Bad News from Washington

Written and contributed by Catesby Leigh, December 2008



Three major developments in and around the nation’s capital highlighted civic art’s sadly debased condition in the latter part of 2008. These developments go a long way towards explaining why the National Civic Art Society exists.


We begin at the Pentagon. Driving by the now-reconstructed façade demolished by American Airlines Flight 77, a perplexing landscape confronts the motorist: scores of cantilevered benches in a gravel landscape. They are arrayed in rows with varying numbers of benches, some benches pointed towards the Pentagon façade, others in the opposite direction, each perched over its own miniature pool of water like a surreal diving board. What is this? Some sort of avant-garde parking lot?

No, believe it or not, it’s a memorial — a memorial dedicated on the seventh anniversary of 9/11. Each of the 184 benches represents a victim who was either on the ill-fated jetliner or inside the Pentagon, while the rows correspond to the sundry years of the victims’ births. So this memorial doesn’t really look like a memorial, but that’s what it is. And a high-maintenance memorial it will be, too — and quite possibly a rather short-lived one, what with the complicated water feature. “Even on opening night, the small pools were filling with gravel,” the Washington Post’s sympathetic architecture critic reported.

In sum, the Pentagon Memorial is a fiasco. And the Pentagon was stuck with this fiasco because an Army Corps of Engineers landscape architect picked a design competition jury packed with conceptualist types who are allergic to the contemporary practice of traditional design — or, to put it another way, allergic to common sense. Sensible memorial designs, like the monumental cenotaph submitted by Dino Marcantonio, never stood a chance.

Increasingly, memorial design has become the province of confused theoreticians who haven’t grasped the elementary fact that the esthetic and emotional returns on reinventing the wheel are extremely meager. Such theoreticians have been stuck in the same rut for the last 25 years, always looking for the next Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall. The result, as the Pentagon Memorial reminds us — and as the 9/11 memorials at Ground Zero and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, will in due course remind us yet again — has been one exercise in anti-monumental dysfunction after another.


On to Case #2: The week after the Pentagon Memorial’s dedication, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts approved the design of the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Memorial, to be situated on the rim of the Tidal Basin. Fine Arts, in case you didn’t know, is the nearly century-old review board entrusted with making sure that architectural and commemorative developments in Washington’s monumental core build on its artistic heritage instead of detracting from it. Alas, that could come as a surprise given the way the commission handled the King memorial’s centerpiece. This is a huge stone mass, over 28 feet in height, with a sculpted relief of Dr. King by the Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin. Photographs of the sculptor’s model suggest a deeply problematic portrait, rendered in a crude style worthy, as a commissioner averred, of Nicolae Ceaucescu or Saddam Hussein. The Society weighed in witha letter to the commission providing a detailed account of the evident defects in the sculptor’s technique.

And yet Fine Arts did not even require Lei to erect a full-scale replica of the King relief at the memorial site. This is standard practice. As Michael Richman recounts in Daniel Chester French: An American Sculptor, a full-scale plaster cast of French’s Lincoln was shipped down from his New York City studio for erection in the Lincoln Memorial. It was judged too small for its setting — not the likely outcome in the present case, in which the sculptor has mistaken gargantuan size for monumentality. Quite apart from the question of his artistic qualifications, then, if Lei was not going to offer a cast for such inspection, he never should have been allowed to proceed with this project.

The Fine Arts commissioners might have asked themselves whether Dr. King’s memory will be well served by this neglect of due process.


Finally, we come to the $621 million Capitol Visitor Center, which was inaugurated on December 2. The CVC fundamentally alters, and much for the worse, the way Americans will experience their most important civic building, the United States Capitol. They will now approach their Capitol not by way of a magnificent flight of steps, but by way of a vast subterranean infotainment zone including a multi-media, interactive gallery, as well as a 530-seat cafeteria, a pair of “orientation” theaters, and two gift shops. (Nearly one-third of the CVC’s 580,000 square feet has been set aside for Congressional facilities.)

The approaches and entrances to the CVC, not to mention a conspicuously ill-designed pair of elevator pavilions, seriously disrupt Frederick Law Olmsted’s 1874 landscape treatment of the Capitol’s east front. Inside, the architectural design — especially in the 20,000-square-foot Emancipation Hall — amounts to modernized pseudo-classical schlock.

The far sounder solution to the problem of creating a secure new public entrance and waiting facility — without the superfluous high-tech museum and cafeteria — would have been to adopt Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s monumental 1811 design for a propylaea, or gateway, on the Capitol’s west front, facing the Mall. Elegant though they are, Olmsted’s terraces, and Bullfinch’s portico above them, are not calibrated to the Mall’s huge scale. But only the terraces, not the portico, would have been supplanted by the addition of a gateway complex such as Latrobe proposed.

Needless to say, the subterranean approach reflects a lack of cultural confidence in our ability to make a worthy addition to a great building like the Capitol. The visitor center’s design thus treats our premier temple of democracy like the exquisite fossil of some extinct primeval species, rather than the expression of a living tradition in humanistic design that exists to accommodate changing social needs in an esthetically and symbolically satisfying way.

What we’re witnessing, in Washington and in countless cities, towns, and suburbs across the land, is not just the breakdown of standards, but the consequences of the collapse of a whole dimension within our culture — the dimension comprised by the arts of form, meaning architecture and its allied arts. This nation presently does not have a civic-art culture worthy of the name. But it does have a tradition, a classically-oriented tradition, that has been suppressed by misguided élites since the 1930s. The main result of this suppression has been an unprecedented epidemic of banality and ugliness.

To secure higher returns on creative effort, our civic art needs some stable default settings. These only tradition can provide, and they should serve to raise the bar on a range of stylistic approaches without negating the possibility of the occasional conceptualist success — which is what the Vietnam wall is, and what the Pentagon Memorial is not. The Federal government is the world’s foremost patron of art and architecture. Extracting more long-term value from its patronage — whether from the esthetic and symbolic resonance of Federal courthouse buildings, say, or even their structural performance — is a matter of legitimate public concern. More importantly, improving Federal patronage and design review means improving American culture, from sea to shining sea. This is the strategic effort to which the National Civic Art Society is committed.

Catesby Leigh is a co-founder and chairman emeritus of the National Civic Art Society.

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