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Frank Gehry learns to like Ike — and the memorial competition

April 2, 2009 |  4:41 pm

Eisenhower-Gehry Not long after the economic crisis hit last year, stalling big development projects around the world, a wide consensus emerged that the downturn could well spell the end of the age of celebrity architecture a decade or so after it began. After all, the commissions that catapulted architects such as Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas and Norman Foster to international fame relied heavily on the easy money and speculative frenzy that fueled the global boom. And the culture seemed ready for a turn away from the glitz and glamour of high-priced buildings by world-famous designers.


And yet this week’s news that Gehry and his firm, Gehry Partners, have won the competition to design a memorial for Dwight D. Eisenhower on a site just off the National Mall in Washington suggests a wrinkle in that story. It turns out that in certain cases — the Eisenhower Memorial certainly among them — the economic crisis may boost the profile of famed firms, not diminish them. It also may only exacerbate the frequently heard complaint of recent years that younger or lesser-known firms face unusually high obstacles to establish themselves alongside the most prominent architects in the world.

That’s not to say that other factors working against the idea of “starchitecture” — including tight budgets and a growing emphasis on sustainability — will likely fade any time soon. But the world’s leading architects — like everyone in the profession seeing work dry up at an astonishing pace — may be more likely to enter and win competitions for smaller-scale projects. Indeed, many architects report a version of the same process happening in private commissions as well, with big firms squeezing out smaller ones for projects that they simply wouldn’t have bothered with when the world was awash in capital for new construction.


Although financing is no longer so easy to come by, the public taste for high-design architecture seems undiminished. Competition juries can still be wowed by big names and bigger reputations, or want to bank on the  buzz a top architect can provide.


The Eisenhower Memorial, planned for a 4-acre site across Independence Avenue from the National Air and Space Museum, is as much a landscape and urban design project as an architectural one. Featuring a number of covered outdoor displays but no permanent museum, it is projected to cost  between $90 million and $120 million. Gehry’s much-delayed mixed-use project on downtown L.A.’s Grand Avenue, by contrast, has a budget of $1.8 billion for its first phase.


Though no details of Gehry’s proposal have been unveiled — the General Services Administration in Washington, which administered the competition, stresses that it remains preliminary — the architect’s selection has given the project a decided Los Angeles flavor. The chairman of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission is Rocco C. Siciliano, who has held leading trustee positions at the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Gehry will act as lead designer for a team that includes the landscape firm EDAW.


Even during the architectural gold rush of recent years, the competition would likely have attracted wide interest. There are just six existing presidential memorials — the last, to Franklin D. Roosevelt, was designed by Lawrence Halprin and opened in 1997 — and the site for this one offers the possibility of relative design freedom. The fact that it will be built near but not on the Mall exempts it from the stringent regulations that have governed other memorials.


Still, the pool for the competition was certainly deeper than it would have been three of four years ago. During the height of the boom, many highly successful architects publicly swore off competitions. They were critical of a selection process that typically culled a group of interested designers to a shortlist of firms that were asked to produce a proposal in very short time for a small fee. Two years ago, Koolhaas called for the competition process, which he termed “hideous,” to be overhauled, if not boycotted altogether.


Gehry, 80, himself took some flak for deciding not to take part in the competition for the master plan at the World Trade Center site in Manhattan, which was won by Daniel Libeskind. Gehry said at the time that he felt that the fees offered to participating firms were insultingly low.


“I was invited to be on one of the teams, but I found it demeaning that the agency paid only $40,000 for all that work,” he told Deborah Solomon in the New York Times Magazine in 2003. “I can understand why the kids did it, but why would people my age do it? Norman Foster or Richard Meier or any of those people? When you’re only paid $40,000, you’re treated as if that is your worth.”

According to Octavia Saine, spokeswoman for the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, each of the finalist teams earned a stipend of $50,000.

It’s tough not to be ambivalent about these developments. To be sure, it will be a benefit for cities to see our most talented and experienced designers tackle public projects as opposed to the oversized and purely commercial developments, such as Gehry’s mammoth Atlantic Yards design in New York, that have lately occupied so much of their creative energy. Competitions for public projects ought to be far more common in this country than they are now. Spain and other European nations have revitalized their cities by requiring design competitions for most public buildings.

And yet after seeing so many high-profile projects designed by the same handful of globe-trotting architects, we are more than ready for a period that provides a smoother path for younger, less established firms — those “kids” Gehry mentioned — to emerge.

“I think there’s always room for the next generation to come up and show the world some new thinking,” said architect Jonathan Marvel, 49, in a phone interview today. His firm, Rogers Marvel Architects, which he established with Rob Rogers, 50, in 1992, was among the four finalists in the Eisenhower  competition.

While expressing great admiration for Gehry’s work, he also admitted, “We were hoping this would be our lucky break.”

In that sense, it is disappointing to learn that the General Services Administration plans not to release the proposal by Rogers Marvel (and of the other finalists, Berkeley-based landscape architect Peter Walker and the Chicago firm Krueck & Sexton Architects). If younger firms continue to face hurdles in landing the juiciest commissions, there is still a good deal for the profession — and the public at large — to learn from competition entries that nearly won the day.

— Christopher Hawthorne

Photo: President Eisenhower. Credit: Associated Press

Photo: Frank Gehry. Credit: Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times


 

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