Thursday, April 2, 2009

Washington will be home to a design by internationally celebrated architect Frank Gehry after all.

Mr. Gehry’s proposed addition to the Corcoran Gallery of Art was scuttled in 2005, but the “starchitect” has been selected to design the national memorial to President Eisenhower on a site off the Mall. The memorial will be built on a 4-acre parcel between Fourth and Sixth streets Southwest south of Independence Avenue and near the National Air and Space Museum.

”We were looking for creativity and an understanding of the president and his times, and Gehry gave us that,” said Rocco C. Siciliano, who heads the 10-year-old Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission with Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, Hawaii Democrat.

Mr. Siciliano said the commission’s decision on Tuesday to choose Mr. Gehry was unanimous. Dwight David Eisenhower II, the president’s grandson, serves on the commission and was one of 11 judges who made the selection.

The other finalists were Krueck & Sexton Architects of Chicago; Berkeley, Calif., landscape architect Peter Walker; and New York’s Rogers Marvel Architects PLLC. Each received $50,000 to develop a design concept.

The four teams were selected in December during a three-stage design competition launched in August by the General Services Administration. It attracted 44 firms.

”It’s very exciting,” said Mr. Gehry, whose exuberant buildings include Los Angeles’ Disney Concert Hall and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. “It’s rare I enter competitions, but this one resonated for me. I’d been to Washington recently, walking around looking at the memorials and thinking there has got to be a better way to do this.”

The memorial commission, perhaps concerned with the controversy associated with the architect’s sculptural work, would not release an image of Mr. Gehry’s design concept. The 80-year-old architect described his memorial as a public square with a tapestry of images woven into a stainless steel wire screen. He said he prepared for the project by reading books on Mr. Eisenhower by historian Stephen Ambrose and others.

“To make a garden like the memorial to [Franklin] Roosevelt didn’t seem to be enough for this site, with all the traffic and existing buildings,” he said. “It had to be about creating a place with dignity.”

Among the challenges he faces is working around Maryland Avenue, which cuts diagonally through the site, and pleasing the federal review agencies that will scrutinize his design over the next two years.

Mr. Gehry said he was inspired by the Lincoln Memorial - “it has power” - and hopes to incorporate stone reliefs depicting Mr. Eisenhower’s achievements, including the creation of the national interstate highway system.

”He created the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, the Federal Aviation Administration, and he took us into space,” said Carl Reddel, executive director of the memorial commission. “The memorial site is perfect in being surrounded by institutions related to his legacy.”

To help tell the story of the 34th president, Mr. Gehry is collaborating with New York exhibit designer (and husband of Caroline Kennedy) Edwin Schlossberg; the Alexandria landscape architecture firm EDAW Inc.; and avant-garde theater artist Robert Wilson, who is known for his work with composer Philip Glass.

Mr. Siciliano said the monument to Mr. Eisenhower won’t incorporate a visitors center but will include interactive displays. “People will be able to get information [on Mr. Eisenhower] electronically at the site,” he said. “We can’t have a museum, but we can have a canopy over it so it can be visited year-round by schoolchildren.”

Estimated to cost between $90 and $110 million, the memorial is expected to take five years to design and construct. It will be financed with public and private funds; the sponsors hope $19 million for the project will be appropriated by Congress in the federal budget for fiscal 2010.

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