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Monument and Memory

Monument and Memory – by Richard MacCormac

from the RA Forum ‘Monument : Anti monument’

published in Architectural Review – October 2002, p.95-96

 

Modernism may have made traditional monumental rhetoric difficult for us, but if anything that heightens the importance of addressing memory. Ruskin explained how memories – those evoked by historic traces, or personal ones – structure our perceptions; my Ruskin Library is accordingly a very small monument about memory. More recently Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory shows how deeply embedded was the concept of English arcadia; first portrayed in the seventeenth century, it resurfaced almost unaltered in a Second World War propaganda poster. Along with the derivation of monument from the Latin ‘monere’, to remind or warn, thesauruses tend to associate two themes with the word; one, including monolithic, awesome and catastrophic refers to overwhelming impositions; the other comprises enduring, memorable and outstanding attributions which lie in our gift.

These attributes, significant to us as individuals and social beings, structure our understanding of our surroundings. Kevin Lynch called this ‘imageability’, and it may he related to the way memory itself can be structured visually. In ‘Memory and the Making of Fiction’, A. S. Byatt wrote ‘One builds large, static structures of mnemonics to put things into, to remember their relations’, and goes on to discuss Elizabethan memory theatres, which were means to remember philosophical arguments by putting them into visual arenas.

Wren’s 1667 plan for London suggests that the city itself might be a giant memory theatre. As London like other cities grew, in the eighteenth century into a city of secular institutions as well as churches, the possibilities for different mnemonics proliferated. But the populace could also affect the perception of a city; events such as the sacking in 1831 of Queen Square in Bristol, a fashionable residential address, by crowds demanding electoral reform was one of many such occurrences when the populace took temporary possession of parts of cities to change their significance and give them a special charge. Richard Sennett, in ‘Disturbing Memories’, develops further the potential for events like this to give the urban fabric an extreme case of representational significance. He recounts how the sociologist Maurice Halbwack studied the various occupiers of Jerusalem. Successive ruling powers had to shift the centre of the city to accord with their own views of themselves. Religious intolerance, s uggests Halbwack was anchored in these irreconcilable ‘moral geographies’.

Recently in London, the Jubilee celebrations and the World Cup have helped Trafalgar Square to surpass Piccadilly Circus as a public focus. It is an example of how events which ‘take place’ – literally the appropriating of a locality – can recharge localities as if they were on an electrical circuit. Trafalgar Square originated in the desire to commemorate Nelson’s epoch-making victory. But it is a ‘place’ which has continually been ‘taken’ for layer upon layer of political and celebratory purposes. This is what Ruskin meant by historical, the effect of human presence. In the ‘Lamp of Memory’ he tries to imagine how he would feel about the landscape of the Jura had it been untouched by cultivation, and is chilled by the thought of the vast emptiness of North America, ‘The American Sublime’ of the recent Tate Britain exhibition.

The potential for recharging is important. The countless statues to Imperial heroes, which London’s mayor Ken Livingstone wants to replace, are probably non-rechargeable; their effect recalls Shelley’s Ozymandias with which Richard Cork concluded the first of our two discussions. What appeals about the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square is that it is demonstrably rechargeable — even with a temporary appearance by David Beckham. Cities are mapped for each of us by a ‘topography of significance’. In so far as this is shared, it is part of our collective memory. Two powerful representations of London which each give a highly partial though resonant view of London are MacDonald Gill’s mural in the St Stephen’s entrance to the Palace of Westminster (1930-32), showing the public buildings of the cities of London and Westminster, and the 1937 Coronation route map. From its origin at BuckinghamPalace and obvious nodes like Westminster Abbey and Trafalgar Square, the Coronation procession also appropriated Piccadilly Circus, Regent Street, the Ritz and Selfridges, Marble Arch and Hyde Park Corner before returning to its source. With a few additions like the Royal Festival Hall, Tate Modern and the MillenniumBridge, the Globe Theatre, the British Library and the prospective Eurostar Terminal, this still defines a generally accepted concept of central London.

Underlying this ‘minds-eye’ picture, and almost impossible to reconcile in a rational way, is Beck’s geometric London Underground map of 1933. There is no obvious means of calibrating the locations on the Underground map with those on a true plan, as the distortions relative to the river show. Yet in its own way it extends the same image-building process of the city. The Coronation route and Gill’s mural both privilege the central area; Beck’s map exaggerates the scale of the central area while also bringing in the suburbs, though in condensed form.

Many beliefs about different areas arise from these distortions, which create a kind of psychological geography. Until recently, West-Enders considered Spitalfields where I live to be much further from Westminster than the World’s End in Chelsea, though it is actually about the same distance. However, even as Londoners more or less share a collective map of London’s two cities — reinforced by such staged celebratory events as Royal Funerals, Jubilees and Coronations — we cannot be anything but amazed by the vast scale of what we have yet to appropriate to the East. The length of the Royal Docks is the same distance as BuckinghamPalace is from the Tower of London.