An unending series of monumental errors
AS befits a great capital city— and a former imperial capital to boot—london’s parks, squares and streets are well endowed with statues and monuments. The Albert Memorial and the Royal Artillery War Memorial are among the finest of their type in the world. More modest commemorations are usually also of a high architectural and aesthetic standard. But of the building of monuments there seems to be no end and, sadly, their quality and impact may be inversely related to their quantity. Memorials are emotional exclamation marks in the townscape and should be used with a similar sense of economy.
Recent years have seen a huge increase in the building of, or desire to build, monuments in central London, particularly in those prestige sites such as Parliament Square or Hyde Park Corner, yet these places are already seriously over-monumentalised. In addition, size matters too much to the promoters of new monuments: Bomber Command richly deserved commemoration, but the huge scale of the memorial as built adversely affects the way in which park, townscape, traffic and ceremonials merge in Hyde Park Corner and may be seen as perhaps trying too hard.
There is also a regrettable trend to physically commemorate the abstract and impersonal. Is anyone really moved by the Ozymandian pretension of the Animals in War Memorial with its idiotic slogan ‘They had no choice’? And the Women and War Memorial, with its fake poignancy of hanging clothing, seems to transform the heroism and sacrifice of millions into the image of a Top Shop changing room at closing time.
Of course, advocates are quick to conflate criticism of a monument with the subject or cause it stands for, yet if we are to have any kind of meaningful discussion about the quality of monuments, the two have to be discussed distinctly.
At the moment, there are plans under way for memorials to commemorate the Holocaust, slavery, Polish airmen, the Italian Partisans who helped Allied prisoners escape and the Suffragettes. They are all worthy subjects, but do they require monuments of stone and bronze, brick and steel or marble? The old formula of plinth, horse, hero and pigeon worked well in what appeared to be a binary world of good and bad. Sadly, many recent attempts to work in the monumental tradition have produced banal results that trivialise the very things they are intended to commemorate.
Isn’t it now time to consider how to honour appropriately and innovatively the players in what we appreciate are more complex and nuanced dramas? Perhaps a five-year ban on monument building would be a good start.
‘Their quality and impact may be inversely related to their quantity