American Architectural History: A Contemporary Reader

By Keith L. Eggener | Go to book overview

Chapter 21
The battle for the monument
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Mary McLeod

The notion of a modern monument is a contradiction in terms; if it is a monument, it is not
modern, and if it is modern, it cannot be a monument.

(Lewis Mumford, The Culture of Cities, 1938)

For much of this century, modern architects condemned monumentality as an antiquated relic of a previous era. They saw monumentality not only as antithetical to the basic functional and social premises of the new architecture, but also as perpetuating the very social hierarchies that they sought to overthrow. One of their primary goals was the obliteration of the fundamental division between the everyday and the monumental; as Alfred Roth later explained, this division was counter to the “basic idea of the equal dignity and formworthiness of all architectural tasks and the oneness of all means of aesthetic expression.”1 Modern architects believed that if a new public architecture was to emerge, it should develop from the new public functions—libraries, gymnasiums, hospitals—rather than from the symbolic programs of earlier regimes—royal squares, triumphal arches, city gates. Of course, strong aesthetic allegiances underlay this moral stance. In the minds of the modern pioneers, monumental architecture meant classicism, and with it, the triumph of the academy.

After World War II, however, modern architects began to reassess strict functionalist dogma. Although practitioners of the new architecture, most notably Le Corbusier, had never excluded symbolism and references to tradition in their built work, few modern public buildings of any stature had been successfully realized. Faced with the massive reconstruction programs after the war, architects were forced to confront questions of public scale and space. These themes were explored in 1948 at a conference, sponsored by the Architectural Review, in which Henry-Russell Hitchcock, Walter Gropius, and Sigfried Giedion among others tackled the issue of “a new monumentality.” Hitchcock’s general definition, adopted by most of the contributors, reasserted some of the traditional attributes of monuments without directly evoking classicism: durability, solidity, dignity, large size, and fundamental emotional impact.2 Three years earlier, Philip Johnson had written an essay specifically addressing the problem of war memorials, in which he forcefully rejected the modernist solution of “living memorials.” Citing man’s need for concrete symbols, he claimed that functional objects like bridges, libraries, and playgrounds never stimulated the same emotional and spiritual response as “useless” memorials. He proposed two archaic models: the mound and the megalith.3

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