An un­end­ing se­ries of mon­u­men­tal er­rors

Country Life Every Week - - Athena -

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

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