Baldfaced lies and the Barefoot Boy

A story about the Eisenhower Memorial’s opponents

You might have heard that the Eisenhower Memorial is a unbuildable catastrophe reviled by everyone from Congress to the people who hired Frank Gehry in the first place.

A closer look shows that’s not true at all. Right now, the real threat is that you’ll fall for its opponents’ deceptive hype.

I had. This is what changed my mind.

February 20th, 2014. A man in a dark suit, with closely cropped hair and black-rimmed glasses rose to address the Commission of Fine Arts, a panel that reviews monumental projects in Washington, DC. He introduced himself as Justin Shubow, speaking on behalf of the National Civic Art Society.

That organization advocates for a return to classical architecture. Sympathetic to tradition as much as to Frank Gehry, when I first heard of them, I was excited to hear an emphatic voice add some life to DC’s mediocre architecture scene. I’d heard that this was the meeting they’d send Gehry packing. I took time off so I could see it go down.

I had listened intently — although, I wondered, where was Gehry? Why did they spend forty minutes talking about trees? — rearranging the deck chairs...

Shubow began a witty, erudite statement. He structured his testimony around comments by two CFA Commissioners, planner Alex Krieger and sculptor Teresita Fernández. Shubow explained that Fernández had serious concerns about how Gehry used theatrical tropes and relied on flat scrims to make the memorial. That other commissioners echoed these concerns was proof, Shubow said, that Gehry’s design had lost its supporters. It was therefore time to “recognize Mr. Gehry’s design for what it is and call it curtains.”

Tension filled the room. As her words were explained back to her, Fernández bristled visibly. She began her comments by noting that despite the liberal use of quotations, she disputed Shubow’s interpretetation of her thoughts:

So I just wanted to clarify that because I think that a kind of cynicism used with people’s comments taken out of context is very dangerous and, when that is done, it requires a kind of clarification which means, you know, there is nothing wrong with theater as a premise for a concept.

Shubow busied himself with his smartphone while Fernández explained how she felt the design let down the theatrical conceit. Summing up, she paused:

So, with all due respect, I think that it is important that we use each other’s quotes within the context that they were used in originally and not taken out of context.

I’d come expecting fireworks, but they came from the other direction.

I’d just discovered what many people had already realized: Justin Shubow plays fast and loose with what people say. He and an ally, Sam Roche, quote people selectively, wrapping fragments in speculation to say things the original speaker never intended and didn’t believe.

Everyone I contacted had the same story: Shubow had twisted their words to mean something very different. All to take down Frank Gehry.

Model of the Eisenhower Memorial, Gehry Partners/AECOM

Anything you say can and will be used against you…

Unlike a simple lie, these misquotes can’t be quickly disproven. No single quote is exactly untrue; only in the aggregate do they paint a different picture. It requires twice as much explanation to say why the claim is wrong. That explanation, in turn, risks further misrepresentation.

What happened at the CFA disturbed me. I had to look deeper. Shubow made a lot of Alex Krieger’s criticism of the two tapestry panels that flank the central space. So, what did Krieger say, and how did Shubow use it?

Two weeks before the meeting, Shubow had made a nearly identical claim in an editorial for the Capitol Hill news site Roll Call:

Alex Krieger, a professor of urban design at Harvard, judged the plan according to the standards of a “traditional first-semester architecture exercise.” He emphatically said, “This would fail.” Krieger complained that each iteration of the design has made it worse. He accused the side tapestries, a major part of the design, of “flapping in the breeze” and asked Gehry to remove them.

Did a Harvard professor really say that Frank Gehry’s whole memorial would fail a freshman assignment? Not quite. Here’s what Krieger actually said on November 21st, 2013:

But, of course, I do have a comment to make about the side panels, not so much the side panels but the fact that each iteration—and you have talked about many iterations of the design—each iteration made the case of enclosure less compelling.
You know, there is a kind of traditional first-semester architectural exercise where you are given, like, three columns and four little pieces of wall and say, “define an enclosure.” This would fail. It would fail. The panels are flapping in the breeze right now.
So they don’t enclose the space. That is kind of an imaginary idea. In the meantime, yes, I would repeat my comments. I am sorry if it was kind of quoted so extensively.

In context, Krieger is referring only to Gehry’s “failure” to shrink the massive site through an enclosure of the large square with those embellished stainless steel screens. Krieger then clarified his point to say he wasn’t opposed to the tapestries themselves:

I love the large tapestry, assuming it doesn’t have any technical flaws, as a fabulous background for the entire composition of the park, landscape as well as now the particular very careful display of the kind of statuary, that core of the memorial.

Krieger knew his comments would be misused, because Shubow already quoted Krieger’s remarks from July 2013. To vainly avoid the inevitable, the commissioner began his remarks with a long preamble:

I want to make sure that my criticism has nothing to do—nothing to do nor can be used as a way to say, gee, it should be a classical-inspired memorial. My comments have nothing to do with trying to move it towards to kind of a traditional classical aesthetic.

Can’t be more clear than that.

Vigorous criticism is part of the architectural profession. Vigorous public dialogue is part of democracy. But the abuse of language by Shubow, Roche and NCAS allies forces the commissioners to temper their language and begin statements of the mildest criticism with paragraph-long preambles.

Unfortunately, those clarifications never got heard. Opponents of Eisenhower Memorial have already wrapped them with other misquotes.

Model photograph depicting east stainless steel tapestry, Gehry Partners/AECOM

Dead men make no corrections

Opponents also claim that the members of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission secretly dislike the design they have spent four years developing. Other than Bruce Cole, whos sits on the NCAS board of advisors, and was only recently appointed to the commission on the advice of Mitch McConnell and has never sat in a meeting, there’s no evidence for that.

Before Cole came on board, the EMC voted unanimously to approve Gehry’s 2013 design. No problem. In order to make it seem like there’s dissent, he quotes a man who can’t defend himself, the late senator Daniel Inouye.

Inouye was Vice Chairman of the commission from 2001 until his death in 2012. In several recent editorials, Shubow and Roche insinuate that Inouye wanted to abandon the design after Susan Eisenhower compared the tapestries to concentration camp fences. Writes Roche:

Siciliano has tirelessly defended Gehry’s design for the memorial, even rebuffing his vice chairman, the late Sen. Daniel Inouye, when Inouye cautioned against staying with Gehry’s design over the objections of the Eisenhower family.

Inouye did write a letter in 2012 to Memorial Chairman Rocco Siciliano expressing doubts about the political feasibility of completing the memorial without the Eisenhower grandchildren’s support. Inouye praises the design, describes his meeting with the Eisenhower sisters, and says that the commission intends to continue with the design. The letter concludes:

Given the continued opposition with the Eisenhower family, I question whether we can ever resolve the differences between the Commission and the Eisenhower family, and whether it would be in our best interest to continue to move forward. In my view, to ignore the family’s opposition would only compound the mistrust and strained relationship the family has against the Commission and, in particular, with the Commissions staff. It could even slow our internal processes.
I want to give you all a report of my meeting with Susan and Anne Eisenhower. I am not sure what the best approach should be at this point in time and welcome any thoughts you might have to this dilemma.

I read Inouye’s letter as practical concern about political challenges, not a the moral rebuke Roche construes it to mean. Furthermore, there’s no evidence that Siciliano brushed aside the senator’s concerns. In fact, the Commission spent the rest of 2012 trying to win back the Eisenhowers, requiring Gehry to make major changes to the memorial elements to address their concerns.

Proof by exhaustion

Opponents have tried to paint the 95-year-old Siciliano as bully and a back-room dealer. Roche alleges that Siciliano has deep ties to Gehry, going so far as to rig the architect selection process. This claims echoes allegations in a 153-page report Shubow prepared for National Civic Arts Society.

The report cobbles together hundreds of out-of-context quotes to make Gehry seem like a power-mad nihilist bent on manifesting metaphysical anarchy in the built environment. Only through Siciliano’s intervention, the report claims, would man like Gehry win.

To prove it, Shubow extensively quotes a dialogue he had with Ed Feiner, a creator of the GSA Design Excellence Program. The whole thing seemed bizarre, so I contacted the architect just to check. As soon as I was on the phone with him, Feiner disavowed Shubow’s interpretation.

“Verbatim, it’s pretty close, but it was not meant to be ambiguous. There is no conspiracy theory,” he said. “I think what they really wanted was a remarkable designer. They were not as open to a full crapshoot.”

Feiner also wanted to make the circumstances of their interaction very clear: Shubow represented himself as a student in a Georgetown University class Feiner was addressing. Feiner found Shubow’s questions aggressive and did not know he was recorded until after Shubow published the report.

And there are plenty more people whose words were stolen and robbed of intent. The problem is that NCAS and its network have produced so much material that it’s impossible to check every assertion and quotation.

I met with Shubow for several hours to get a better sense of his opinions. He’s very passionate about architecture, which I respect. What I don’t understand is why he’s embraced these cynical tactics. If the memorial is so self-evidently bad, why is it necessary to exaggerate?

I’ll say this: Shubow claims that Gehry is a nihilist who creates architecture for a meaningless world. But when it comes to the Eisenhower Memorial, no one has done more violence to the truth than Shubow himself.

A mockup of the tapestries under different lighting conditions: L-front C-rear R-artificial, Gehry Partners/AECOM

The Black Gash, all over again

Opponents are taking the two false impressions they’ve created — that the current design was chosen through crooked deal and that it’s hated by everyone—to demand the design process restart with new leadership.

The architect, the opponents say, should be chosen from an open contest, as with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1981. Roche and Shubow both invoke the selection of Maya Lin, an unknown, as desirable, democratic outcome.

I have a hard time taking this populist grandstanding seriously, for one simple reason: the opponents hate the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

For example, Bruce Cole sat on an NCAS-sponsored panel at the American Enterprise Institute that found the Vietnam to be the point where memorial design went wrong. Shubow’s 153-page NCAS report disparages the concept that won in the footnotes, even as it’s making an appeal to the open contest.

A memorial, reads the report, is ambiguous and therefore nihilistic. The individual experience and emphasis on grief, he says, is inferior to the previous era’s love of clear, positive monuments, “when America took pride in all of the wars it fought.”

Have we become a nation of amnesiacs? The Vietnam memorial was almost lost to a nearly identical campaign of smears and political meddling. Once again, those smears could succeed, and we wouldn’t know it until it’s over.

It’s time to come clean.

I believe there’s room for traditional architecture in our memorial landscape. I do not believe there’s a place for deceptive soundbites stolen from the mouths of others. This is not the right face of tradition.

Justin Shubow, Sam Roche and other opponents need to own up to what they’ve been doing. Since Bruce Cole sits on both the NCAS and Eisenhower Memorial Boards, he needs to clarify what he knows about the misleading tactics, and whether he endorses the claims of the NCAS report.

The way opponents have taken to fighting the memorial in the past few months makes it impossible to have the dialogue about architecture that I thought we could have. What’s going on here is no way to build a democracy.