Monumental blunders

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Monumental blunders

I found myself the other day just off the National Mall marveling at the monumental blunders all around me. I was walking along southwest Independence Avenue, between Fourth and Sixth streets, otherwise known as primo federal real estate, and to the right and left of me, I was confronted with travesties of architecture.

To my left was the new Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial. Just about the only evidence of human interaction with this forlorn and deserted hardscape are the benches scattered along the walkways. Each of the benches has a stone block in the middle of its seat to discourage the homeless from trying to stretch out for a nap. Not that anyone should have worried — the Eisenhower Memorial is such a dismal blight that not even vagrants want to spend any time there.

Across the street to my right was a fiasco of an entirely different sort — the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. Unlike Ike’s lonesome tumbleweed plaza, there were crowds eager to get in and goggle at the airplanes and spaceships — the airplanes and spaceships housed in a construction site. The Air and Space Museum has been renovating and retrofitting for years, and it isn’t done yet.

The building opened in the summer of 1976. Come the spring of 1979, Smithsonian officials appeared before the House Committee on Appropriations, asking for millions of dollars to repair the National Air and Space Museum. One of the questions congressmen had for them was how a brand-new building could need such extensive repairs. The museum was a victim of its own success, was part of the answer: “Unprecedented numbers of visitors have put a strain on many of the facilities within the building,” the Smithsonian told lawmakers.

But that wasn’t the whole story. The Air and Space Museum was one of those midcentury modern piles that rejected traditional forms and played with novel construction techniques. At first glance, the museum looks as if it is made of stone. And one might expect a stone structure to survive the ages. But the idea of building a stone edifice was passe. Instead, the late architect Gyo Obata created for the museum a metal skeleton to which 3-centimeter-thin blocks of stone veneer were attached. It did not prove to be a robust approach.

“Many blocks of stone cladding on the building are allowing the intrusion of moisture through seams of softer stone strata which have been dissolved by the action of wind and rain,” the Smithsonian told Congress. “Caulking between facade stones has failed,” museum bosses testified, “allowing water leakage to the interior.” At the street level, things were even worse, with thin stone panels “cracking and disintegrating.” The bureaucrats warned the appropriators that fixing the crumbling marble was “critical to prevent moisture from penetrating the waterproof seal and eroding the steel framing below.”

The museum wasn’t the only D.C. museum suffering from crumbling marble. Architect I.M. Pei used the same stone-skin-over-steel-cage technique in designing the East Building of the National Gallery of Art. It, too, proved vulnerable to wind, rain, and sunlight. (Silly, I had always thought that the basics of building entailed accounting for wind, rain, and sunlight.) Replacing the old veneer cost about $69 million.

In 2017, planning was well underway for redoing the exterior stone of the Air and Space Museum — replacing some 160,600 gross square feet of stone cladding facade. The renovation is coming along, but no one seems to blame the architect for the expense.

I got up from the anti-bum bench where I had been sitting at the Eisenhower Memorial, taking in the work being done on the museum. Designed by starchitect Frank Gehry, the Ike Memorial is a prime example of the arrogance of modern architecture. A sign at the unsightly Ike-Mem offers a free audio tour. On your smartphone, you can hear about “Eisenhower as General,” then “Eisenhower as President,” then “Eisenhower as a Young Man.” But first, there is a more important segment: “Architect Frank Gehry’s Vision.”

The Dwank Gehrenhower Memorial is a testament to lousy civic architecture. But give it its due. It may be ugly. It may be bleak. It may be bland and desolate. But hey, it’s fully three years since it opened, and at least it hasn’t started to crumble.

Eric Felten is the James Beard Award-winning author of How’s Your Drink?

© 2023 Washington Examiner

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