Despite delays, the new memorial makes a sweeping statement.
by Bruce N. Wright, FAIA
In May of 2020, the construction and installation of the memorial for General and U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was finally finished. It was a process that took more than 15 years of internecine delays and objections put forth by pro- and anti-memorial groups and the descendants of Eisenhower himself.
The design of the Eisenhower Memorial is by Frank O. Gehry with Gehry Partners LLP of Los Angeles, Calif., and AECOM as project manager. Installation of the iconic metal mesh tapestry—the central feature of the memorial—is by Pfeifer FabriTec Structures, Dallas, Texas. The memorial is located adjacent to Independence Avenue in Washington, D.C., and across from the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. It fronts the Lyndon Baines Johnson Department of Education Building, a featureless bleak mid-century modern concrete box. It seems likely that Gehry wanted to counteract the education building with translucent scrim to soften the backdrop.
The memorial had a long, tortured path to completion, beginning in 1999 when the approval of federal funds from the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) were allocated and world-famous architect Frank Gehry was commissioned to design it.
The design went through many revisions, with early objections voiced by Eisenhower’s descendants and the National Civic Art Society. The National Civic Art Society favored classical Beaux Arts style monuments over the contemporary approach proposed by Gehry, perhaps best known for his design of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Along the way, objections seemed to focus primarily on the tapestries—initially there were three—and at one point, Gehry threatened to discard all the tapestries and remove his name from the project.
One of the main sticking points was Gehry’s proposed images for the woven tapestries, and primarily that of a bucolic scene of a Kansas prairie where Eisenhower grew up. Family members objected, wanting emphasis on Eisenhower’s role as Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force during World War II.
Meanwhile, artist and architect Tomas Osinski was recruited by Gehry to figure out how to weave the tapestries out of metal. Osinski has helped engineer and construct many of Gehry’s artworks. Gehry was especially eager to incorporate a tapestry that was woven out of a durable material that could withstand all seasons. Osinski initially approached companies that could weave stainless steel wire in a jacquard manner on a gigantic scale. There were only a couple of weaving companies capable of jacquard weaving in this material at the required size, but mock-ups from these looms proved too opaque.
While Osinski pondered the weaving conundrum, committees involved with the Gehry design debated what actually would get built. By 2015 more changes, including eliminating two of the three tapestries and focusing on a single, central tapestry of the Normandy coastline, to represent Eisenhower’s war and subsequent years, opened up consensus toward what would be built.
In 2017, a NCPC news release described the modifications: “The key changes since the revised concept approval are revising the tapestry art with a more abstract drawing of the cliffs of Normandy; relocating the young Eisenhower sculpture from the LBJ promenade to the northwest entry plaza, refining the sculpture pose and configuration; adding a new inscription wall with the Abilene Homecoming Speech near the relocated sculpture; and retaining four large trees previously considered for removal.”
“The project was so difficult that life after tapestry seems boring. It took many years of research and testing to figure out how to fabricate the tapestry,” says Osinski. “We tried all sorts of systems, researching companies that could create what we were looking for, and ultimately decided we had to create our own system of fabrication of the actual tapestry.” The end result is a fabrication system that utilizes a unique combination of novel computer programming, innovative automated equipment and proprietary fabrication technology.
Osinski says, “Exhaustive testing proved that the resulting product is extremely durable and will last for well over 150 years without any notable damage. We fabricated all 600 stainless steel panels for the Eisenhower Memorial tapestry at our factory in Los Angeles, Calif. The process for creating a tapestry begins with the desired tapestry image. We then split this image into layers and render each layer into a wire pattern using our custom software. The layers are welded together with stainless steel braided wire using our CNC machine fabrication system to produce the final tapestry.”
“Part of the purpose of the Eisenhower Memorial was to show how a ‘boy from the wrong side of the tracks’ could rise to become the president of the United States,” says Osinski. After many attempts to depict this, including the scene of the Kansas plains of Eisenhower’s boyhood, he began using software developed to manipulate photos of the peaceful coast of Normandy to try to reproduce an idealized context of the president’s World War II experience. Osinski explains, “But the realistic photo sketches I kept trying didn’t work; they were overwhelmingly complicated to fabricate and became too opaque. I concluded that it would be better if Frank made a more abstract drawing of the coastline.”
Another challenge, according to Osinski, was placing the tapestry on the site in such a way that it was not overwhelmed by its backdrop, the Education Building. The orientation of the sun angles needed to be taken into consideration, so the use of the opaque jacquard weaving method would not work.
Once the image was set and the fabrication method refined, production went full force to complete and install all 600 panels. Installation was deftly carried out by Pfeifer FabriTec Structures using a method of clipping the panels to a stainless-steel taut grid hung from a structural cross channel that connects the tops of the six columns. A compressed completion schedule wrapped up in time for a scheduled May 8 dedication on the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day. However, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the ceremony was postponed to Sept. 17.
A New York Times article recently quoted David Eisenhower, the president’s grandson, about the finished memorial: “In hindsight, it shouldn’t be surprising that the effort to settle on a memorial design aroused discussion and controversy. There were differing opinions as to what an Eisenhower memorial should ‘say,’ and many differing opinions as to design.” After the revisions, he says he was satisfied with the final outcome and sees Gehry as the right choice all along.
Bruce N. Wright, FAIA, is an architect and consultant to architects. He is a senior instructor at Dunwoody College of Technology and frequent contributor to IFAI publications.
SIDEBAR: ‘No pressure’ fabrication
Artist and architect Tomas Osinski used braided stainless steel for the Eisenhower Memorial. He says there are three factors to consider: electrical power (or current), the pressure at which the weld is performed and the duration of time it is applied to the metal. “We found that to do what we wanted to do, you need maximum power for a minimum of time with zero pressure. We learned that you don’t fight the material!”