The monument in the age of political correctness | icon 044 | February 2007

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words Kieran Long

Contemporary memorial design is in crisis, argues Kieran Long. Minimalism has become the accepted, culturally sensitive way of commemorating loss. But does it communicate anything more than silence?

We live in an era of memorial inflation. In my hometown of London there seems to be a solemn dedication of some kind every other month, often for events and wars long past. In New York, the huge memorial to the September 11th terrorist attacks is in the final stages of design, dwarfing in size and certainly cost any previous memorial, even those for the world wars. In Berlin, a whole block in the centre of the city has been given over to a national memorial to the murdered Jews of the Holocaust – the size of the gesture commensurate with the guilt that Germany feels. But it seems likely that even these will also be dwarfed by ever more public gestures of grief. The memorial park to the victims of the tsunami on Boxing Day 2004 is set to be one of the most lavish ever.

The size and frequency of new memorials are increasing, even if the size and drama of the events they commemorate are no more acute than in previous eras. But the public bickering over contemporary memorial design is also louder and more rancorous than it has ever been. From the rows about the cost and nature of the memorial at Ground Zero to children injuring themselves in the Diana Memorial Fountain, there seems to be something missing from the contemporary memorial designer’s armoury. Designers routinely fail to convince governments and the public of the integrity of their proposals, while a growing reluctance to make symbolic gestures that might alienate some members of a multicultural society adds to the lack of consensus about how the dead should be honoured in cities. All of this poses the question: why don’t contemporary memorials mean anything to anyone?

Perhaps the controversy that originated the contemporary crisis was the row over the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, by Maya Lin in 1982. Her memorial was the first to adopt strategies from minimalist art. It consists of a right-angled cut in the ground filled with 140 black granite panels – “the Wall” – with the names of 58,175 dead inscribed on them. This was a stark and shocking gesture, completely shorn of representation. With no columns, arches, laurel leaves or even regimental insignia, it was a bold and radical departure.

The project and its author – Lin was 22 years old, Chinese-American and a woman – were controversial. The restraint of the visual language was an affront to many, particularly those in the armed forces, finding it an insufficient expression of the honour due to servicemen killed in action. As a result, another memorial was built in more conventional style (a figurative sculpture of three GIs), making the Vietnam War the only war with three national memorials in the USA (the third one being the Vietnam’s Women Memorial).

Lin’s design is tasteful and beautiful and has become the canonical contemporary memorial. Her own fame is a direct result of it, and some think she was directly responsible as a juror of the World Trade Centre Memorial competition for the victory of Michael Arad’s minimalist proposal.

The problem that many had with the Vietnam Memorial could be its ambiguity, the reticence of the minimal form in glorifying the achievements of the military, its preference for commemorating loss. It is cited as a building of dignity and contemplation rather than bombast. But 20 years on, I am beginning to think that the problem was not its ambiguity, but its silence. In retrospect, this minimalism looks like short-term thinking, shying away from historical references. It relies on history to be recorded elsewhere, choosing instead to evoke a general sense of loss and absence.

Even if one accepts (as I’m not sure I fully do) that religious imagery is no longer a relevant aesthetic reference, it’s still to be proven that minimalism is an appropriate strategy for dealing with loss in wars. The expression of a single material buried in the ground was Lin’s one innovation (the alphabetical listing of names was mirrored on First World War graveyards and monuments). But the conspicuous dumbstruckness that is the prevailing atmosphere in her memorial has set the benchmark for a whole generation of memorials that have come since. We have been told that art galleries are the new cathedrals, but can art administer the last rites as effectively?

Lin’s monument is an extraordinary achievement for many reasons, but it is time to say that her strategy opened a Pandora’s box – no longer is eloquence required to memorialise death, but silence. Minimalism has come to be the language of universalism, which is deemed appropriate for monuments now that societies are afraid of being seen as exclusive. But minimalism, while contemplative and seemingly universal, fails to provide the meaningfulness necessary for a powerful monument in a particular culture.

In his column in June of this year, New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote about Ground Zero that “the site remains so politically and emotionally charged that every sane proposal has unravelled”. He lamented what he saw as the value engineering of Arad’s scheme and said that it had been “stripped of its meaning” to create a vast subterranean museum displaying the “relics” of September 11th. The article is an impassioned plea for reason, but Ouroussoff misses the failures of the original scheme in his zeal to defend the architect’s vision. The problem with memorials as abstract as Arad’s design is that barely anyone but the architect can grasp what is immovably meaningful about the proposal. The footprints of the twin towers are sacrosanct, but other parts of his proposal have proven impossible to keep because they don’t seem to communicate. Features such as the descending ramps, which had no precedent, were meaningless and had to be dropped. Even Edwin Lutyens’ Memorial to the Missing of the Somme in northern France suffered alterations – it was reduced in size to 42m high, partly in order not to be higher than the Arc de Triomphe. But the form was not changed one iota out of respect for the artist.

Ouroussoff gave as his contrasting example the “success” of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, originally designed by Peter Eisenman and Richard Serra. But this field of concrete blocks was equally controversial in that city, and was eight years in gestation. One of the value engineering exercises undertaken on that project was the reduction in the size of the field from 4,000 to 2,700 stones, and the forced adjustment of the edges of the site to make them more friendly to visitors by the planting of trees. This decision prompted Richard Serra to quit the project in protest. Eisenman continued, even ceding to demands for a buried interpretation centre at one corner of the site.

It is a mighty impressive achievement, but to what degree is the meaning of the monument affected by its reduction in size? Where do you draw the line? The need for an interpretation centre somehow brings into relief the profound silence of this non-representational visual language. Contrast this with Daniel Libeskind’s approach, the other architect closely associated with effective memorials. Libeskind is the master of labelling his architectural gestures with non-religious slogans. His ability to pitch the jargon of memorial at just the right level contributed hugely to his victory in the competition for the Ground Zero master plan. Although the memorial was always to remain separate, he infused the early proposition with elements from it – the Ring of Remembrance, Lines of Heroes, the Wedge of Light as well as the Freedom Tower. Many of these gestures have been lost as the project has progressed. Among them, the idea to manage the light falling across the site in such a way that on every September 11th a particular spot in the foundations of the Twin Towers would be illuminated. This was translated later into a “wedge of light” arrangement – much simpler to achieve. Libeskind’s strategy seems to be to build in redundant symbolism, knowing that not all of it will survive. But it compromises the integrity of the project for symbols to be so disposable.

Whatever one thinks of Libeskind’s work, there is a certain pagan grandeur to the Ground Zero project, which allows the urbanism to be defined by the commemorative function. The problem, as with all of Libeskind’s work, is that you will need a handbook to understand it. At his Jewish Museum in Berlin, the client erected plaques to explain what “the architect Daniel Libeskind is trying to suggest”, with the bewildering array of references manifested in the slashes in the metal facade and the paths picked out on the ground. Just as with the Eisenman project, interpretation is needed for the memorial to be effective.

These would seem to be the two contemporary approaches to the design of monuments – the silent and the hyperactively talkative. But as well as these, there is another, far more prevalent vision of how memorials should be. It is what I would loosely term the Royal Academician school of memorial building. And despite an increasing interest in contemporary architectural gestures, it is certainly the most conventional and common in London.

Typical of this third approach is the National Firefighters Memorial, a bronze statue that stands outside St Paul’s Cathedral. It is the work of John Mills RA, a sculptor responsible for a number of memorials in his career. First raised in 1990, this memorial was then expanded, raised on a plinth and re-dedicated in 2003. It consists of an almost life-size bronze of three men engaged in fire fighting during the Blitz, a historical but somehow universal image of heroism, particularly relevant given its proximity to the cathedral – the quintessential symbol of London’s wartime resilience. Mills’ most recent contribution to the public realm of London is the Memorial to the Women of the Second World War. A much more suggestive piece, it depicts the uniforms of jobs that women undertook during the war. Prominently located on Whitehall next to Lutyens’ Cenotaph – the capital’s principal monument to the dead of the two world wars – it brings to mind not only the industry of women, but also their frustration and anger when, after the war, they were forced to give back much of the independence they had gained during it.

These academician sculptures are, predictably, much less tectonic statements than they are figurative and symbolic. They are things to look at rather than things to experience, and rarely do they have a spatial gesture.

Contrast this with a classic architect’s memorial, the National Police Memorial at Horseguards Parade by Norman Foster. It is highly architectonic, with a space-making sensibility rather than a sculptural one. By means of a glass monolith, and another wall perpendicular to it displaying names of fallen officers, Foster created a rectangular sanctuary, defining a space to inhabit rather than an object to be venerated or looked at. The touchy-feely version of this in London is the Diana Memorial Fountain design by Kathryn Gustafson, the controversial and expensive watercourse on the banks of the Serpentine, which has proven exceedingly popular, despite its cost overruns and technical problems. It seems that architects are uncomfortable with the creation of a communicative object, and would rather make spaces of sanctuary and repose. This design, much like Maya Lin’s, foregrounds the visitor’s psychological powers of reflection, rather than aspiring to teach them anything about the event itself. You sit there and look inside yourself, rather than interpreting a symbol provided by a sculptor.

The prompt for this essay was an obscure recent memorial in north London. The Islington Green War Memorial by John Maine RA is a ring of stone. It replaced a cheap and supposedly temporary plaster obelisk that had stood on Islington Green since 1918, and which was recognisable from so many village greens.

Maine’s imagery is new age hokum – some kindof abstract circle of life imagery. That a monument to the millions killed in two world wars should try to evoke rebirth and continuity so directly is a gesture of such banality and disrespect that it is difficult to believe that public money has been wasted on it.

A good proportion of the memorialising work done in England between the wars and after the Second World War took on classical forms – arches and obelisks as well as crosses and figurative bronzes. This was a clear language for monuments – at a time when it was needed the most – developed by a mature generation of classicist architects of which Lutyens was the most important individual. His Cenotaph on Whitehall, also initially intended to be temporary, was originally constructed in plaster in 1919. It was made permanent later, after an unprecedented public response saw one million visitors come to mourn there in its first year. The symbolism of the Cenotaph is not completely abstract – a coffin sitting on top of a stone pylon. Universal in its emptiness and even modern in its expression, it recalls culturally specific rites of burial and commemoration.

Lutyens’ artistry is such that he makes any suggestion of rebirth deeply and in an almost hidden way. Gavin Stamp, in his brilliant book The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, describes how Lutyens was a committed secularist and was able to convince the Imperial War Graves Commission to commit to non-religious imagery for all of its graveyards and monuments after the First World War. Most significant of Lutyens’ symbols were the Stones of Remembrance, large and unadorned stones that stand in all the major monuments and graveyards of English dead from the First World War, wherever they are in the world. They were controversial for their lack of religious imagery (despite the stone’s cosmetic resemblance to an altar) but deep in the design lay a reference to rebirth. The edges of the stones are not straight, but subject to entasis, a Greek term for the slight curve given to apparently parallel lines ensuring they are perceived straight. Lutyens was only too aware of the symbolism of the circle in many cultures’ death rites. And he was a humanist, able to marshal both conventional civilian and non-religious imagery under severe pressure from the great and good of the established church in England. The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey was in some sense the church’s retort to the Cenotaph, a plain stone tablet with centred text justifying the burial of an unidentified soldier “among the most illustrious of the land”. Lutyens criticised this famous memorial. He wrote: “Even an unknown soldier might not have been a Christian, the more unknown the less sure you could be.”

One of the striking aspects of contemporary memorials is how quickly they are erected. Nicolai Ouroussoff is correct in my view in his assessment that what is required at Ground Zero is more patience in the building process. In Northern Ireland, monuments and memorials are erected so quickly and in such sensitive locations that they have become the very territory of profound ideological differences. Memorials are directly related to, and indeed part of, the events they mark. The erection of provocative memorials, often without planning permission, has been part of the ongoing Troubles, even as violent attacks subsided. Violence on the memorials themselves seems to have replaced violence to individuals.

It is interesting to note that the officially sanctioned memorials in Northern Ireland
are generally intended to commemorate the dead whichever side of the conflict they were on. But this vague and universal mode does not seem to find favour. When the monuments themselves are disputed, the question is the degree to which remembrance perpetuates conflict.

The most recent war memorial unveiled in London was for the soldiers from New Zealand who died in the world wars, a ceremony attended by the queen, Tony Blair and around 2,000 other grandees and veterans. There was no fanfare, no politicised speeches. That this dedication went largely unreported is no surprise. It is 61 years since the end of the Second World War, and enmity is long past for most. This is amongst a number of memorials that are built so that we might not forget the contributions of those men, although the last of them will soon be dead. Memorials in more durable materials than human flesh will stand in for personal testimony. In some sense this is the role of all memorials. It doesn’t much matter, traditionally, what
kind of people they are, the important thing to represent is usually the cause for which they died, the banner under which they united even until death. But contemporary memorial design is unable to communicate this – multiculturalism has not been codified aesthetically in a way that allows it to make dignified expressions of mourning.

Memorial design is in crisis, unable to decide on the imagery that can capture what binds together the 2,979 who died at the World Trade Centre, the millions dead in the Holocaust or the thousands dead in Northern Ireland since the Troubles began.

I believe that the public is literate enough to demand more than the dumbness of contemporary memorials, and that artists must meet the yawning need for memorials of meaning. Perhaps Lutyens’ was the last generation to believe in universal imagery from the past. Gavin Stamp quotes the War Graves Commission when it wrote: “in death, all … of whatever race or creed, should receive equal honour under a memorial which should be the common symbol of their comradeship and the cause for which they died.” Either those causes no longer exist, or contemporary architects, designers and artists are unable to create symbols with sufficient power to evoke them. The age of political correctness and multiculturalism has shorn architects, designers and artists of their ability to make symbols that communicate, and the response has been the desolate silence of minimalism.

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