Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape

Vol 2, Issue 2

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Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape

by Kirk Savage

Without realizing it, I began working on Monument Wars almost thirty years ago, when as a budding free-lance writer I decided to write a piece on Maya Lin’s newly unveiled Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Little did I know that this memorial would have such a tremendous impact, transforming the national Mall—as the Washington Monument had done a century before.

Washington, D.C. is now one of the world’s most important monumental centers. Appearing to embody the “mystic chords of memory” that remain constant beneath the twists and turns of human history, the national Mall represents the nation as a mysterious organizing force, rivaling nature itself. Yet few realize just how recent, fragile, and contested this achievement is. Even the basic idea of a monumental space in the center of the capital—incorporated into the original city plan of 1791—is a modern invention of the 20th century, realized amid ecological destruction and public controversy.

Monument Wars is the first book to tell the story of this sea change in national representation. Public monuments emerged in the 19th century in a decentralized, ground-based system of representation, a landscape of heroic statues spread out in traffic circles and picturesque parks. The 20th century witnessed the birth of a spatial system that concentrated authority in an intensified center and demanded new psychological engagement from the citizen. In the process the very idea of the monument changed profoundly, from an object of reverence to a space of experience. The shift from ground to space has had unforeseen consequences, introducing tragedy and trauma into the memorial landscape and giving us some of the most significant public monuments in the nation, if not the world. It also replaced the old locally cherished landscape – full of trees, gardens, ponds, and greenhouses – with a vast tabula rasa that became, in effect, a space of national conscience; here the major political upheavals of the late 20th century took place in open view. In the wake of that period of social ferment, the national Mall has seen an explosion of new memorials, leaving Americans with multiple paradoxes of national identity, in an era of increasing global insecurity.

In Monument Wars I proposed a ten-year moratorium on permanent public monuments, a period in which to experiment with ephemeral memorials – temporary installations, reinterpretations, and other interventions in the existing landscape. Much to my surprise, the staffs of Washington’s planning agencies, particularly the National Capital Planning Commission, have shown interest in the idea of ephemeral commemoration and have been discussing it with me at some length. With citizens’ groups pressing the planners to rethink the Mall’s boundaries and functions, and the Washington Post’s critic Philip Kennicott actually suggesting that we should “unbuild” obsolete monuments and gradually return the Mall to its 19th century state, my proposal now seems far less radical than I thought it would be.

If all goes well, a keynote event will take place in December that will begin a public dialogue on how ephemeral memorials might be integrated into the capital’s commemorative landscape.

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