Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Why Memorials Bore Me

Despite the fact that memorials are often the most visible examples of high design to the public at large, they interest me the least as an architect. My job requires primarily solving a problem practically, combining expressive forms with a functional use of space. Most of the projects I’ve been engaged in have tremendously complex programs and the designs consist of sophisticated engineering, technical detailing, and exhaustive amounts of coordinating the flow spaces and rooms. Buildings in general are complicated machines, because they are required to perform in countless ways for all kinds of viewers and people in the surrounding environment.

I’ve been part of teams designing tall high-rises with multiple uses and amazing structural and mechanical systems. Currently I’m involved in the realization of large covered malls, open retail blocks (‘lifestyle centers’) and convention center hotels, all building types whose success is defined less by abstract sculptural beauty than by how well it meets the needs of the clients and the users or tenants, as well as how it enriches the surrounding city.

It’s for that reason the unveiling for the design of memorials does little to engage my interest. The demands of what a memorial must do are at best nebulous, ambiguous, and the reasons behind why the designer arranged the masses and spaces are based on very shaky ideas. If you are creative enough to design something interesting, you are creative enough to come up with a narrative that explains what you’ve created, often out of thin air. It’s a commonly known secret among those who work in architecture that the poetic justifications for a design is all talk, and sometimes descends to embarrassing levels of schmaltziness. If you go up and ask the designer his explanation of the design often he’ll reply that it’s a result of conforming to set program demands and making forms just ‘feeling right’ together. They can’t tell you why what they created was the one and only true design.

It is no coincidence that memorial designs have never faired well as vehicles of success for architects. The designer of the Vietnam memorial, Maya Lin, hasn’t really done much since except more little memorials. Oklahoma City’s memorial was designed by an firm from Texas that struggled to get additional work after that project’s completion. The most highly revered architects in history are never associated with memorials. We don’t study memorials much in architecture school, probably because it’s less about making buildings than it is glorified landscape architecture. The limitless ability to transform a landscape however one chooses is closer to art than architecture. They are great opportunities to enrich a space and endow with emotion and the sublime, but for me memorials are nothing more than a grand but self-important gesture.

As a result of my personal views on memorials in general, I’ve been hesitant to comment on the Flight 93 memorial scheme submitted by Paul Murdoch Architects. I usually get bored the seemingly endless stream of new memorials and my natural cynicism does me no service in taking the designers’ poetic explanations seriously. My first major criticism of the Flight 93 memorial in Pennsylvania is that it wallows in loss and the tragedy itself, not only of a flight crashing but of the fact that there are disagreements between people so large that they took with them many innocent people to their deaths. Mark Steyn encapsulates this tendency to passively remember the loss rather than to be inspired by sacrifice:

But surely it’s not too much to hope that in Pennsylvania the very precise, specific, individual, human scale of one great act of American heroism need not be buried under another soggy dollop of generic prettified passivity. A culture that goes to such perverse lengths to disdain its heroes cannot survive and doesn’t deserve to.

We miss the dead, but I’m sure the dead wish that you not dwell in missing them, but to learn from their sacrifice to defend the country against those that wish to destroy them. The ‘crescent of embrace’ was admitted by Mr. Rudolph himself as a symbol for healing and bonding. The design was not there to teach the facts of what actually happened that fateful morning of September 11th since Paul Murdoch argues:

“Our memorial is not about offering explanation for what happened, but to allow people to come to terms with it."

Yes, the memorial is simply a place to grieve four years after the fact. No need to learn any lessons here. That is one of my biggest problems with the proposed design: it’s too timid.

Other initial comments praise the design’s simplicity so as to facilitate refection and more grieving like the following:

"It's powerful but understated,"… "It's beautifully simple.”… "The understatement speaks to the profoundness of what occurred here,"

The above point to another irritating attribute of modern memorials: the repeated use of austere minimalism engenders a contrived affect: less is so much more. Carve the landscape with a simple element like a retaining wall, add some towering monoliths in conspicuous geometric focal points, and presto! You’ve got a “powerful” but “calming” and therefore “profound” place. It’s all too predictable.

As for the issue of the site plan of the project resembling a muslim crescent, the post at the blog No Pasaran! could not explain my position any better:

One of the failings of many of my fellow Architects is that they know that form have meaning, they just don’t understand or care much about what that meaning is.

Because of the inherent open-endedness in designing a memorial, symbolism is crucial for visitors to perceive the memorial as a truly special space. There is no requirement to conform with standard structures that have historically remembered the dead, and the contemplation of what happens to the dead and where they belong in the universe compels the use of symbols to explain these complex metaphysical questions. Yes, architects know that form has meaning, which is part of what separates them from contractors, but they have long since abandoned fixed traditional meanings to traditional forms. The role of post-structuralist philosophy has had a major effect on contemporary architecture theory. Architecture has been reduced to a system of signs that connote power relationships, and the signs can be used in different contexts with different meanings so that any person can use them to their own advantage. The post-modern embrace of nihilism since the seventies has undermined the sanctity of symbols in architecture. “Post Modern” Architecture became a style made popular during the late seventies and eighties that based itself on the superficial application of traditional architectural symbols, syntaxes, and physical ‘quotations’ from the past but then juxtaposed, distorted, and exaggerated to produce an ironic effect. The purpose of this was to inject meaning but deconstruct its integrity. Ever since that period, it has been impossible for architects to honestly apply intellectual rigor to their forms. The philosophical underpinnings of traditional forms that were handed down to us for millennia have been stripped from their meanings. Thus, a crescent is no longer a symbol of Islam, it’s just a form that expresses healing and bonding…or whatever floats your boat. In my estimation, theoretical doctrine in architecture is dead. There is no depth in significance or greater truth to be found in contemporary architecture. A lot of it is just incidental, though beautiful.

I’m confident that Paul Murdoch intended to design a beautiful space, but his inability to take into account the power of the Islamic crescent is indicative of the poverty of symbolism in contemporary design. The current (and in my opinioned justified) outrage at the proposed scheme for the Flight 93 Memorial is evidence of the disconnect between designers and the public on the power of symbols. And yet, there are many more issues where these two sides are disconnected, a subject that would comprise of an endless number of volumes.

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