Recently, as museums to remember the stain of slavery in America are under construction in Washington and planned in Charleston, there has arisen the vital question of whether memorials should speak in a traditional language everyone can understand or a modernist language whose only clear meaning denies the past. The designs in Washington and Charleston both regrettably embrace the latter language, on the logic that any architecture before the Civil Rights Movement lacks legitimacy to reflect on slavery. Of course, nobody would propose designs in the shape of a plantation house, but modernism itself predates the Civil Rights Movement. Ultimately, the past cannot and should not be denied. It must be addressed and understood, the better to reconcile history with a future built upon truth. Traditional architecture has language for that. Modern architecture does not.
My 2012 column honoring the memorial in London to Britain’s Bomber Command addressed the language of monuments. Here it is:
Bomber Command Memorial on target
July 5, 2012
Last Thursday in London’s Green Park the dwindling number of Royal Air Force bomber crews from World War II gathered to dedicate a memorial to Britain’s wartime Bomber Command. Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles attended. A vintage Lancaster dropped red poppies.
The memorial honors the bomber service’s bravery, and deaths of 55,573 men of Britain and the Commonwealth who helped bring Nazi Germany to its knees.
The monument came 67 years after the end of the war. That’s because Britain is abashed at the carpet bombing of German cities in retaliation for Hitler’s carpet bombing of British cities. Britain debated the propriety of building a memorial that, while intended to remember the fallen air crews, might also be seen as a memorial to dropping bombs on cities.
The morality of that strategy was debatable, has been debated for 67 years, was indeed debated by Churchill who ordered it and the generals who sent the fliers on their grim mission. Almost 50 percent of the men in those planes died in combat, a higher rate than in any other branch of service but submarines.
The memorial honors their courage with a thoughtful classicism that needs no interpretation to be understood. Architect Liam O’Connor showed how classicism’s simple language articulates a noble endeavor. Metaphorical restraint gives powerful lift to the design. Colonnades flanking the pavilion may be seen as the long wings of a bomber. The roof uses aluminum from the wreckage of a Canadian Halifax bomber downed over Belgium.
In the pavilion a sculptural group in bronze by Philip Jackson portrays an air crew of seven exhausted men just back from a mission, some looking at the ground, others scanning the sky for homecoming comrades. Their faces reflect the range of feelings you would expect.
But there is no range of reflection in the criticism that the memorial has generated.
“This monument is a nasty piece of artistic jingoism,” writes Jonathan Jones of The UK Guardian. “Amnesiac classical,” writes Rowan Moore of the Observer. “If it had to be built, you might hope for some nuance.”
The bomber crews loved it anyway.
Many old soldiers visited the World War II Memorial on the Mall in Washington on Independence Day [by Rhode Island architect Friedrich St. Florian]. It is beloved by vets but hated by most critics for its classicism. No one dares to criticize that classical obelisk, the Washington Monument, for its lack of nuance. Frank Gehry has wondered why Lincoln got a Greek temple. No critic dares to remind him that ancient Greece gave birth to democracy.
The Greek democracy was not perfect. The democracy created by Washington, Jefferson and the other Founders was not perfect. Even four score and nine years later it was still imperfect. Lincoln’s priorities in the Civil War are debated to this day. Did he wage war more to preserve the union or to free the slaves?
Nuance is what historians are for. Monuments articulate the abiding truths of history. When architects use architecture to articulate nuance, they end up articulating nothing. In short, they end up with Frank Gehry’s proposed memorial to Dwight Eisenhower.
Gehry’s supporters say his design’s complexity of expression encourages visitors to think their own thoughts about Eisenhower. What they mean is that Gehry’s memorial has no meaning. This is so because modernism has no coherent language to convey meaning.
Of course, the architectural commentariat does not dare to point that out.
There is a code of silence about modern architecture that achieves its summit in commentary about the design of monuments and memorials. Gehry’s Eisenhower design looks like the underside of a highway access ramp, so its incoherence elicits no complaint. Liam O’Connor designed a classical Bomber Command Memorial; if it were a modernist heap instead, looking vaguely like a downed bomber or a bombed city, the critics would not now be complaining that it lacks nuance. The code of silence protects this vapidity, but most people can see through the mumbo jumbo.
And so the democracy we celebrated yesterday is chipping away at the code of silence. In June, for example, Congress defunded Gehry’s Eisenhower memorial design; and the Bomber Command Memorial opened in London to the public’s admiration, even 67 years late.
Democracy takes time to act, but history has time in abundance. The apparent demise last month [alas not yet consummated even in 2015] of a flawed memorial in Washington and the dedication last week of a great one in an even older democracy are lessons taught by citizens that architects ought to heed.
Below are renderings of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in construction on the National Mall and the International African American Museum still being designed in Charleston.