By Howard Pousner
The Atlanta impresario behind Atlantic Station’s 82-foot-high Millennium Gate and the designer of Midtown’s World Athletes Monument is back at it, encouraging classical design in favor of the modernist twists he scorns.
Rodney Cook Jr. was part of one of five winning teams in the Eisenhower Memorial Counterproposal Competition, initiated by the National Civic Art Society in Washington in collaboration with New York’s Institute of Classical Architecture and Art in response to architect Frank Gehry’s design proposal.
The Dwight D. Eisenhower National Memorial Commission selected Gehry, whose signature work is the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, as architect in 2009 and chose a preliminary design in March 2010.
Gehry’s design for the memorial to the 34th president, which is to be built on a four-acre site just south of the National Mall near the National Air and Space Museum, mixes traditional and contemporary elements and was seen as fairly muted in terms of the curve-loving architect’s usual style in the eyes of many critics.
“Anyone expecting to see the flamboyant forms the architect has sometimes employed will likely be surprised by the memorial’s generally straightforward and rather historically minded approach,” Christopher Hawthorne wrote in the Los Angeles Times.
Gehry’s “Eisenhower Square” is to feature two parallel colonnades of limestone pillars and an assemblage of limestone blocks carved with sculptural reliefs along with a trio of woven steel-mesh tapestries that are to feature images of Eisenhower and his presidency.
In a statement, Gehry said the design’s underlying goal is to represent “a president widely viewed as modest in character but defined by great and vast accomplishments.”
But Cook, president of the Atlanta-based National Monuments Foundation, was not buying.
“I feel that the Gehry design does not accurately reflect the timeless tradition of Washington memorials nor that it accurately reflects or represents Eisenhower’s great accomplishments as a general and a president,” he said. “Eisenhower was a magnanimous personality, a general greater than most before or after him. His monument should reach for the same heights he achieved in life. Eisenhower was the savior of Europe, and I do not think Gehry’s ‘theater for the automobile’ will give him proper credit where it is due.”
The counterproposal by Cook and Washington architect Michael Franck features a 28-foot-high statue of Eisenhower, in his D-Day uniform, atop a 100-foot-tall banded Doric column supported by a 50-foot-high base. At the foot of the statue would be an observation deck from which visitors can view the nation’s capital. The proposed memorial is 9 feet taller than the 169-foot-tall Trafalgar Column in London, a statement by the designers about their belief in the greatness of Eisenhower’s heroism.
At the street level, the Cook-Franck design calls for an open street front, tree-framed walks and gates leading into a park highlighted by fountains.
“I would like to see a monument built in Eisenhower’s honor similar to the Washington, Jefferson, or Lincoln memorials,” Cook said in an e-mail to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “These buildings are truly timeless American landmarks. They say so much by saying so little.”
The Cook-Franck counterproposal won a commendation (or honorable mention). First place went to Daniel Cook (no relation to Rodney Cook) of Tucker, for his design focused on an arch of peace featuring statues of Eisenhower as a military and a political leader. The counterproposal awards ceremony, attended by Susan Eisenhower, the president’s granddaughter, was held earlier this month.
The National Capital Planning Commission, which is overseeing the project planning for the Gehry-designed memorial, took a stance that can only be described as dismissive toward the counterproposal competition.
“We are aware of the competition but are not part of it, nor are we tracking it,” Stephen Staudigl, NCPC’s public affairs officer, told the Washington Examiner, but added that the commission’s review is a public process welcoming input.
Rodney Cook said he collaborated on his counterproposal not just for the sake of civil debate but because he believes it is superior and should supplant Gehry’s.
“There is precedence for significant alteration to national monuments in Washington,” he said. “Both the Vietnam and World War II monuments were significantly adjusted. … The public is now paying attention and is increasingly alienated by the Gehry design.”
Pending various federal agency approvals, the Gehry version, estimated between $90 million and $110 million, will tentatively open in 2015.