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Week of: August 26, 2001

Monuments in an Irreverent Culture

by F.R. Duplantier

"Contemporary American culture views with suspicion the attitudes of respect, reverence, and awe that are necessary for the building of monuments."

"Periodically, government officials, city planners, architects, and architectural historians have paused to consider the design and development of our capital city," observes James F. Cooper of the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. "In 1791 Pierre Charles L'Enfant was commissioned by George Washington to draw up plans for the new capital. In 1901, inspired by the City Beautiful Movement, Senator Charles McMillan, Daniel Burnham, and Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. created the McMillan Plan, which has served as the blueprint for development of the Monumental Core area for the past century. In the mid-1980s," he continues, "as it became evident that all available sites on the Mall were quickly being consumed, the National Capital Planning Commission began a search for potential sites outside of the Monumental Core."

In a recent issue of the American Arts Quarterly, published by the Newington-Cropsey Foundation, Cooper comments on the monuments planned for construction on and outside the Mall in Washington, and discusses the dilemma that faces monument designers in an irreverent age. "Today's memorials, reflecting the current state of the national psyche, lack the courage or insight to present a powerful, bold, and heroic message," he remarks. "This anti-heroic attitude is not limited to public art or architecture but permeates our society at all levels. We question how heroic even the most admirable individuals are and, frequently, emphasize their frailty instead of their strength. Yet the purpose of a monument is not to provide a complex portrait of an individual or group," Cooper insists. "Historical detail should be subordinated to symbolic meaning, not because we want to distort the past but because memorials must endure future changes in taste and style. Those based on the conflict and ambiguity of our age," he asserts, "will not survive the test of time."

According to Cooper, "Monuments traditionally convey meaning with direct statements of reverence and veneration. Stylistically, monuments tend to be conservative, drawing on earlier models," he remarks. "Figurative memorials employ a symbolic language that has evolved over millennia in Western and non- Western cultures. This vocabulary, once the norm for public art, fell out of favor in the mid-twentieth century," Cooper laments. "For much of the twentieth century, artists were more interested in abstraction and irony than they were in creating forms, which transmit symbolic meaning. Prevailing cultural assumptions favor non-hierarchical or non-heroic monuments," he notes. "The resulting designs are often confused, lacking in cohesiveness and void of aesthetic qualities."

Cooper says city planners in Washington today are "facing perhaps their greatest challenge: to preserve the city's historical, spiritual, and civic legacy, at the same time addressing the growing needs of a worldclass, technologically enhanced capital of a great nation. This will require sensitivity to unique circumstances, as well as an understanding of urban design," he affirms. "No one wants a city plan imposed by an inflexible autocrat, yet the current state of uncoordinated growth is threatening the heart of Washington's civic space. The only way to save the Mall," Cooper concludes, "may well be to leave it alone."


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