I wrote most of this back in September when Four Freedoms Park opened, then got bogged down and never finished it. It appears in the spirit of end-of-year cleaning. Since then, Belmont Freeman has released an essay that uses the park as the lead into a round-up of recent memorial projects. Freeman sees recent trends differently than I do, seeing “today’s political and cultural climate [as one] in which scripted narratives prevail,” but if you’re taking the time to read what I’ve written here then it’s well worth your time to read it too.
One of the last designs ever made by architect Louis I. Kahn, the park has been more than thirty years in the making. Its centerpiece is a roofless room formed from 36-ton granite blocks, surrounding a bust of FDR himself.
I happen to think that the top floor gallery in Kahn’s Yale Center for British Art is one of the best spaces in which to sit, think and look. Copious amounts of natural light, fantastic views down to the main floor through the light wells (yes, I used to lean over to look even though they tell you not to), and gentle wooden finishes can make even eighteenth-century art look beautiful.
Needless to say, then, I’m interested in what happens when you let that sort of light-attuned genius on an island in the East River (surprise, surprise, Kahn himself talked about ““the endlessly changing qualities of natural light, in which a room is a different room every second of the day” in his plan). I’m also interested because Kahn’s Four Freedoms Park was designed in a transitional moment for monuments and memorials, on the cusp of what, for memorials, seems to have been an era of enigmatic ambivalence.
As Anthony Vidler observes in his essay on the Cooper Union site, the first generation of modernist architects didn’t really do monuments (Gropius’ Weimar memorial was a rare exception). Instead, commemorating the World War One was left to neo-classical and Beaux Arts architects. The most successful responses to the war by those architects tended to be in a stripped-down classicism, like at Vimy Ridge or Thiepval, that offered consolation in anonymity amidst the many casualties of the war, crushed by the weight of impersonal destruction that those monster monuments managed to evoke. We can call this the “era of (collective) heroism,” where memorials combined remembrance with an implicit sense of the rightness of those who were being remembered. It was an era of synecdoche: in the nineteenth-century, a statue of a heroic man represented that man. In the early twentieth, it stood in for a vast but not quite innumerable number of “common” heroes.
World War Two was a challenge for memorial-makers. The scope of loss, with its almost innumerable casualties, was one obstacle, but more than that was the sense—in the wake of Hiroshima and the Holocaust—that the usual symbols of heroism and nobility seemed insufficient. Too many dead, and many of them not combatants, was a challenge that artistic synecdoche was hard-pressed to meet. As a consequence, slowly at first but with growing momentum, memorial-makers turned to the power of abstraction—and with it to a certain ambiguity about exactly what message was being sent.
That ambiguity was more and more important as consensus about “goodness” and “justness” in war collapsed. Nothing encapsulates the “enigmatic ambivalence” quite like the American Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which avoids the human form (the “Three Figures” were added later) and instead offers up a great black gash in the earth. Even more radical were inverted or disappearing Holocaust memorials in Germany that sunk into the earth to become invisible.
Today we seem to be entering a new era. Great tragedies still demand deliberate ambiguity, tempered perhaps by techno-esotericism that offers opportunities to embed meaning in apparent chaos (the names of the victims at the 9/11 memorial were placed in proximity to another according to a complex algorithm that handled the adjacency requests). On the other hand, if I had to guess I’d say we were coming into an age of memorial irony. Sculptures like Douglas Coupland’s War of 1812 memorial take a deliberately irony-laden approach, while the America’s Response Monument, with its’ Remmington-esque statue of a larger-than-life American special forces soldier on horseback, has such a retro-heroic tone that it’s hard to take seriously. Way back in 1975, Paul Fussell responded to his World War II service by writing, in The Great War and Modern Memory, that “every war is ironic.” Thirty-five years later, our memorials may have caught up with his sentiment.