Can architecture take us back to the past? And at the same time, can it prepare us to face the challenges of the future? As exciting as it may sound, the answer does not lie in the use of a time machine! It lies in the careful understanding of the impact of architecture through monumentality. With the examples of monuments and memorials, the aim is to discuss how a specific kind of architecture influences our perception of the past, the present and the future.
The Social and Political Impacts of Monumental Architecture
When asked to define architecture, architect Peter Eisenman responds, “Architecture is a political act” (Quintal, 2019). Unlike the conventional descriptions of the profession, where architecture is defined as the art or practice of designing or constructing a building (architecture), Eisenman describes this profession concerning its political and social impact on society. One might wonder, why talk about monuments specifically? Monuments are designed to represent a strong social or political narrative and hence their impact is far greater. Such projects influence the historical and contemporary narratives of the city’s urban fabric. To question how monumental architecture affects our lives, it is crucial to address the influences that go beyond the materialistic characters of buildings. Through the following examples, the attempt is to evaluate how memorials build a distinct historical narrative. The aim is to also understand how positive and negative emotions towards urban spaces are directly linked to the design of the memorials.
The Colossal Architecture and its Impact
Constructed in 1931, India Gate stands strong as a memorial to undivided Indian army soldiers who died during World War I (India Gate). Designed as a triumphal arch, the memorial is a constant reminder of its history in the contemporary world. Even though the structure continues to signify its historicity for years, its impact on the everyday life of the city is constantly changing. Constructed in the prime location of the city, the memorial has completely transformed the use of its surroundings post its construction. On a micro level, it is perceived differently by different users. An architectural student might perceive that space with awe but for an athlete, it can just be a roadside attraction that he passes by every morning during his practice run. During 1931, it was perceived with different emotions with remnants of WW1 but today, for many, it’s just another selfie point for its monumentality. Even though how people perceive this memorial is constantly changing, its physical character and monumental nature continue to signify a particular moment in history. It takes us back into the past, constantly reminds us of the gruesome history and teaches us lessons to prevent such extreme actions in the future.
Besides the impact on users and surroundings, national memorials like India Gate mark their significance on global platforms. Many times, it is associated with a nation’s identity and it gains a symbolic character because of its historic significance and grandeur features. It has witnessed moments of celebration, political rallies, riots, and many such events involving thousands of people. The activities happening around this memorial can spread both positive and negative emotions. Celebrations and rallies around the site or tour visits to the memorial extend the emotions related to patriarchy, empathy, compassion and identity. But on the contrary, many times the memorial becomes a contested space where protests, disputes, and riots extend hatred and violence. An important question to ask here is what about the architecture of the monument that transforms its surrounding into an extremely contested urban space? Its monumental nature allows it to push certain ideologies powerfully across thousands of people and because it is situated in a prime public location, it becomes easily accessible for everyone. This allows the memorial to turn into an impactful tool to project different social or political messages as per the use of the space.
Can Architecture be Impactful without being Grandeur?
In contrast to the monumental architecture like India Gate, there exists another kind of architecture that is smaller in scale and affects the users in a completely different manner. A project called ‘The Dispersed Memorial’ challenges the conventional ideas of memorial architecture. Designed by Sergio Beltrán-García and Rodrigo da Silva and inspired by the Stolpersteine project, the project seeks to counter the challenges of victim attention by proposing a low-cost, modular, and self-constructing memorial assisted by mixed reality technologies that bridge the gaps between attended to and neglected victims of COVID-19 pandemic (Beltrán-García, 2020). The dispersed memorial deployed its prototypes in Mexico, Germany, and United States in autumn 2020. The prototypes consist of a flat-packed DIY kit sent to communities, which can be easily constructed at its destination which is a piece of urban furniture. The DIY kit is provided with a software component, an embedded QR code creating a common platform where testimony may be contributed (Beltrán-García & da Silva, 2020).
Unlike the India Gate, the Dispersed Memorial is a participatory construction process to build a memorial and it breaks the conventional methods of designing a monument. It influences the users on a micro level yet it connects people across nations with the use of technology. So what is the impact of this kind of participatory project that defines the idea of monumentality with entirely new design guidelines? As these memorials in the form of furniture can be placed at different locations, they are dynamic and can be easily replaceable. Their scale is much smaller than the previous example and they are easily modified or disposed of by the users. They promote participation, interaction, and interconnections across the globe. The impact of the Dispersed Memorial might not be as visible as that of memorials like India Gate, but it can be inclusive of the narratives of victims that are generally ignored by the powerful state narratives.
The discussed examples shed some light on what is the impact of architecture through monumentality and how this impact is different based on different methods of designing. One has to constantly question the ideology behind constructing a monument and its effect on changing times to decode our history, to act consciously in our present and to be cautious about our future.
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Beltrán-García, S. (2020). The Dispersed Memorial. Retrieved from ssbeltran: https://ssbeltran.com/the-dispersed-memorial
Beltrán-García, S., & da Silva, R. (2020). The Dispersed Memorial. Retrieved from The Dispersed Memorial: https://memorialdisperso.com/eng
India Gate. (n.d.). Retrieved from Cultural India: https://www.culturalindia.net/monuments/india-gate.html
Quintal, B. (2019, January). 121 Definitions of Architecture. Retrieved July 7, 2021, from ArchDaily: https://www.archdaily.com/773971/architecture-is-121-definitions-of-architecture