Architecture, Urbanism, and the Eisenhower Memorial

By Paul Knight on August 14, 2012 — 8 mins read

If you are reading this, chances are you are already familiar with the drama surrounding the design of the Eisenhower Memorial. For the uninitiated you can catch up on everything at www.EisenhowerMemorial.net.

While I have not engaged in the discussion on the memorial up to this point, a few weekends ago I decided to charrette the problem. After studying Frank Gehry’s design and the counter proposals from the National Civic Art Society, I noticed that something was missing–context. All the proposals had the architecture (for better or for worse) but most were missing the larger context of urbanism. Most of the designs simply rendered the memorial as a plaza for the Education Building. The last thing Washington, DC, needs is another plaza.

Presented herein is yet another counterproposal that considers the larger context of Maryland Avenue. Below is a cropped sketch of the proposed Eisenhower site; following are brief explanations on how I got there. Click on the images for larger files.

Architecture

Most of the negative reaction against Gehry’s proposal has been targeted at his architecture. I happen to agree with the dissenters. Early on in the project, Gehry developed his design based on the observation that the site is a “theater for cars.” As you might imagine, any design that starts out this way is destined to be uninspiring. Surely Eisenhower would have appreciated a more appropriate parti than this.

The Civic Art Society’s competition revealed many fine counterproposals, but again the focus was taken off of the urbanism and targeted almost exclusively on the architecture. The proposals stayed within the boundary lines of the site (as they were told to do). While the proposals maintained the axis with the Capitol, they failed to take into account the visual journey along the axis. What good is a monumental column if one must look past the sloppy work of traffic engineers? Take a look at the aerial view of Maryland Avenue (highlighted in red with the Eisenhower site on the lower left block) below and you will see what I mean.

Gehry was right–the site is a theater for cars. But that doesn’t mean it has to stay that way.

Precedents

Washington, DC’s great ancestor is Pope Sixtus V’s plan for Rome for it is there that the Baroque axis made its grand appearance. Following the precedent of Rome, Pierre L’Enfant, the man responsible for DC’s design, utilized the axis to organize DC both spatially and conceptually. Rather than creating a theater for cars (or carriages), L’Enfant created a theater for memories. The axes he described allow the important markers of the city–monuments and public buildings–to tell their story.

Many avenues around the world successfully use the axis as a device for displaying monuments. Those shown below were used specifically for this proposal:

  1. Avenue de Breteuil, Paris
  2. Commonwealth Avenue, Boston
  3. Monument Avenue, Richmond
  4. Because Washington, DC was programmed as our nation’s capital, the avenue played a fundamental role in its planning. It’s most famous avenue, Pennsylvania Avenue, physically binds the White House with the Capitol thus linking the two branches of government. If one were to mirror Pennsylvania Avenue about the axis of the Mall, the result would be Maryland Avenue which projects right through the Eisenhower site.

    And with that, we have arrived at the core of this discussion. Thanks to L’Enfant’s plan, we have been handed a framework that is full of potential energy. Washington, DC, must repair some of the damage that has been done over time. By using the Eisenhower Monument as a catalyst, that is exactly what this proposal is trying to do for Maryland Avenue.

    Maryland Avenue

    This proposal reconfigures Maryland Avenue to match the original intentions of L’Enfant’s plan by making it one of the major symbolic avenues of the city. In its current state, the avenue is a haphazard arrangement of roads, vegetated buffers, and on-street parking stalls. None of these elements on the ground reinforce the axis; the view of the Capitol is simply treated as happenstance.

    The image above (click for larger file) shows the proposed changes for Maryland Avenue. Working along the existing axis, at the center of the avenue is an 80 foot lawn with a 15 foot path directly down the center. Trees are planted along the perimeter of the lawn at 20 feet on center. These trees march all the way down the avenue and do not break from their line; this reinforces the perspective with the Capitol. On either side of the lawn are two one-way streets 18 feet wide. Rather than intersecting Independence Avenue and 4th Street at an angle, these streets turn off to make a perpendicular intersection. They either intersect into the local lane of Independence Avenue (reconfigured into a multiway thoroughfare) or the minor north-south street (4th Street).

    Reconfiguring Independence Avenue into a multiway thoroughfare (with 40 feet of through lanes, 10 foot medians, and 18 foot local lanes) allows Maryland Avenue to serve its symbolic purpose while also creating safer intersections. The medians within Independence Avenue prevent left-turning traffic from entering Maryland Avenue. Access is instead provided from the local lanes of Independence Avenue or from the north-south streets (3rd, 4th, and so on).

    That being said, converting Independence Avenue into a multiway thoroughfare is not critical for this proposal. If Independence Avenue were to keep its existing condition, Maryland Avenue would continue to function almost exactly as it does today. The only difference would be a geometric realignment of Maryland Avenue’s streets.

    Finally, the last component of Maryland Avenue is the monument.

    A Setting for Monuments

    To commemorate Eisenhower, a column (or arch or sculpture or obelisk or pavilion) occupies the central axis of the avenue. Structures including a museum and garden support the monument outside the lawn. These structures could also serve other public functions such as bus or Metro stations. That said, their primary purpose is to physically reinforce the urbanism of the site and to rebuild the visual tunnel toward the Capitol.

    While the Eisenhower monument would be the first piece of the puzzle, reconfiguring Maryland Avenue would create opportunities for future monuments. Eisenhower could easily share the Capitol’s axis with future heroes and memories. Each new memorial would reinforce the next just as they do on Commonwealth Avenue and Monument Avenue. Maryland Avenue would become a physical succession of history.

    Security Setback

    Of course there is cost, politics, and numerous other factors of feasibility to consider, but one item in particular that severely limits this reverie from becoming reality is the security setback. The security setback was established by the Department of Defense as a measure for protecting public buildings from possible car bombs. Depending on the level of security required, the setback could be anywhere from 20 to 50 feet; that is not a typo–50 feet. The Education Building, for example, which sits on the Eisenhower site, requires a 50 foot buffer from vehicles.

    With this requirement, the DOD is effectively promoting suburbia in an area that is the last place that should have it. A 50 foot setback may save human lives in the event some wacko decides to detonate a car bomb, but it is otherwise an urbanism killer. It is no wonder that some of the areas in and around the Eisenhower site are devoid of pedestrians–this is predominately due to setbacks, not car bombs. How far are we willing to go to destroy our cities in order to protect ourselves?

    I am reminded of a couple of quotes by Eisenhower:

    If you want total security, go to prison. There you’re fed, clothed, given medical care and so on. The only thing lacking is freedom.

    And this one:

    The problem in defense is how far you can go without destroying from within what you are trying to defend from without.

    I did not attempt to accommodate the 50 foot setback for all cases in my proposal. I did, however, try to compromise. The worst case scenario allows a vehicle to get within 18 feet of one of the buildings. As noted in the Lease Security Standards of the General Services Administration, this is almost acceptable as long as a blast-proof facade is provided. This would come at a cost, but it is well worth it–with it you would be buying better urbanism.

    The public buildings of DC must be allowed to physically re-engage our public rights-of-way. Some negotiations by the GSA with the DOD have already been made, but it remains to be seen if a compromise favoring urbanism can be reached.

    Conclusion

    I intentionally (and conveniently) left out the architecture in this proposal. While I left the monuments and buildings as blanks, I believe that the priority should be in setting up the syntax of urbanism over the semantics of architecture.

    In this proposal I have focused on the axis specifically because it “transcends style.” Terminating the axial vista is something that Garnier capitalized on in Paris and Gehry in Bilbao. As long as the urbanism is right–the axis, lawn, trees, and streets–the style of architecture can be left for another debate. Before we get too bogged down in the architecture we need to first make sure we have the urbanism. More often than not urbanism is the base that sets up architecture for success or failure. If Frank Gehry eventually gets his way, this proposal would at the very least provide him with some better parameters within which to work; it would not be his theater for cars.

    Traditional and modernist architecture can coexist. The reason this works is because all structures follow the higher order of urbanism regardless of their differences in appearance.

    1. North Main Street, Providence
    2. Michicago Avenue, Chicago

    Let me be clear: by saying this I am in no way suggesting that Eisenhower’s memorial should be some esoteric kinetic sculpture (or metal screen). I do believe that classical architecture is far more appropriate than the metal aesthetic. While Eisenhower deserves a monument that suitably reflects his presidency, it is Washington, DC, that we must first be concerned with. Ignoring the issue of Maryland Avenue does a disservice to both DC and Eisenhower.

    With Eisenhower’s pioneering focus on transportation issues in the 50’s, it would be appropriate that his memorial should spawn a positive change for one of DC’s underutilized avenues. It could be yet another one of his lasting legacies and his last great contribution to our nation’s capital.

    Update August 20, 2012: The NCPC’s original study for the Eisenhower Memorial, dated August 31, 2006, can be found here.

    Update August 21, 2012: The Office of Planning for DC has their Maryland Avenue Southwest Plan available online here. Also, Mike Pauls discusses the Eisenhower Memorial and Maryland Avenue at his blog here.

Leave a comment

  • Great proposal Paul! I love the idea of a DC “Monument Avenue” where various significant figures could be arrayed in an historical progression. It would be a pleasure to stroll down a literal history lane.

  • Boh of those pictures demonstrate how modern and traditional architecture can coexist but not how they can coexist well. I am intimately familiar with the top photo, of the Rafael Moneo addition to the Rhode Island School of Design’s museum. It is bad enough in the photo: it only shows that proper scale is not enough to produce harmony. And in fact, from a more distant view the addition pokes up with such brutality into a cityscape of supreme loveliness that the latter is seriously degraded, if not destroyed. Moneo is known for working in historical settings; he is not known for working well in historical settings – the latter are almost always injured by his work.

    • David,
      I must disagree. While I am in no way promoting the aesthetic of Moneo’s work, the fact of the matter is the building behaves well in the urban sense. Glass completely wraps around the corner of the building–from the sidewalk to the piazza next to it. A month ago there were food trucks just outside–people were easily flowing in hordes between the trucks and the museum. There was a physical/visual connection with the activity going on inside as well–jazz band, museum registration, demonstrations, etc. It was quite nice.
      I am not very familiar with Moneo’s other work, but in this case I think he did fine. Of course there’s always room for improvement.

  • The Office of Planning for DC has their Maryland Avenue Southwest Plan available online here. Also, Mike Pauls discusses the Eisenhower Memorial and Maryland Avenue at his blog here.