Bill Zahner, Hon. AIA, is the president of the the Zahner engineering and fabrication company. Zahner is one of three engineers tapped by Frank Gehry, FAIA, to build a prototype for the vast metal tapestries that will be part of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial. Zahner talked to ARCHITECT about the design and potential construction of this feature.
Can you describe the tapestries and your involvement there?
We made one of them for Frank. We work with a company that does ballistic weaving. We made ours out of stainless and Teflon or Kevlar wire. The idea was to create this image that looks like a tree. It was using a technology that’s way out there. It was really kind of fun to investigate whether this can even be done. We made one of them; there are two others made by other people.
These are prototypes or working designs?
They’re prototypes. He wanted to see how they went together, how they would appear, how they would show in the sunlight, reflections from different angles, that was the point of it.
Do you think the prototype answers all those questions?
I don’t know. It answered a lot of questions for us, but I’m not sure it did for Frank and for his design. I didn’t really have any communication with him afterwards. The thing that’s kind of intriguing is you’re definitely pushing the edge of technology in that regard. I think it has a lot of potential for other things in the future. There’s various things. The material is about as durable as you can get. They’re self-cleaning, easy to clean. They would last probably hundreds of years with very little maintenance.
You said the technology is way out there. Can you describe what makes this so progressive?
We’re working with a weaver of ballistic materials. We’re working with him on how you would do it, how you would join the pieces together, how you would create the art. I was somewhat skeptical at first, but after working with these people and getting it done, having something that had some real wherewithal, I took some of the samples—I’m a trustee for an art institute here in Kansas City, and we have a big fiber department. I showed one of the fiber artists the work. The excitement level around the surfacing was huge!
So I’m trying to think of other ways perhaps it could be utilized, but I thought it was incredibly unique. And typical of a Frank Gehry. It always amazes me with Frank. I’ve known him for 30-plus years, and every time, it’s more and more. The guy is constantly pushing the edge of things in his designs. You just do not see that kind of refreshing entrepreneurial approach.
You said that they’re easy to clean and self-cleaning. Can you describe what that means?
The material is such that it’s not going to react with other materials or things in the air. Granted, things get dirty and dusty from wind-blown particles. But as soon as it rains, it’s going to clean it off. If there’s more adhering waste, it would be easy to clean it off with a simple power washer. It’s such a durable material. We’ve done other screen projects, and sometimes those small openings act as a filter in the air, but they’re so easy to clean. We had to clean it ourselves while we were working on it, and it was quite simple.
Are you aware that the tapestries have drawn some criticism from some of Eisenhower’s family members?
I’ve heard things. I don’t know the particulars. I can’t speak to the art, and I can’t speak to what their expectations are. The only thing I can say is that when Frank asks us to try something, I’m always intrigued by the opportunity to try.
During a hearing before Congress on the Eisenhower Memorial design, one architect who testified, Rodney Mims Cook, said that maintenance costs and cleaning costs associated with the screens could rise to as much as a million dollars annually.
I don’t know. I don’t know how he arrives at that. Think about it: You have screens at your house that are an even smaller, tighter weaves. And granted, they’re not a piece of art—but you rarely clean them. They shed the stuff. I don’t know how it could cost that much. I don’t know where he’s coming up with that. The materials we utilize are so indestructible—the best term I would use from a metal standpoint, they’re noble. They’re unchanging.
What he was suggesting—and I know that he’s a third party to this conversation—was that the screens could collect trash. Things might blow against them and not make progress past them. Is that a concern you’ve anticipated?
Again, it’s not my design. And sure, things can blow through the air and fix to it. It can with any surface. When you have a surface that’s inert—chromium oxide on the stainless steel, Kevlar surface on the other—the things being blown against it are not going to alter that material. They could just as easily be blown off it. I can’t imagine an easier material to clean.
How do you think this material is going to fit in with the marble and the other surfaces on the National Mall?
I think there’s something fascinating about it, because of the way it’s going to capture light and look different at different times of the day. It’s going to reflect the light of the day, it’s going to reflect the light of the night differently. It’s unlike stone or concrete, which people think of as durable, but metal can be as durable as well. Here you have a material that’s very thin and very light but has much the same characteristics as the stone and granite around it—it’s very durable.
What are the next steps?
I don’t know. We enjoy doing things Frank asks us to do, and we enjoy helping his people. I hope he gets the chance to do it. It’s ambitious and interesting.
What was the first project you did for Gehry when you started working for him 30 years ago?
It was the 100th anniversary for the Sheet Metal Workers International Association union in Washington, D.C.
What do you think of the choice for Gehry as designer for this memorial?
I think he’s one of the most fascinating designers ever to live.