What is the value of monumentalism?

I recently read an interesting article from Greater Greater Washington about the issue of Monumentalism. The author points out the conflict that arises between the life of the city and the value placed upon the monumental views of the mall, avenues and important buildings. The author, David Alpert, best describes it writing, “Monumentalism’ puts postcard D.C. above human D.C.”

The problem with this reality of D.C. is illustrated by several references in the article, most-pointedly the city clinging to the grandiose visions of the 20th Century as opposed to leading America in a new century of urbanism; and the large, often hot and empty spaces that cannot be utilized easily by the public.

Proponents of changing the mall cite a desire of many Washingtonians for a streetcar system, and for returning the mall to a state of civic usefulness and enjoyment, a “Central Park of Washington.”

The issue of monumentalism presented in the article brings up several interesting facets of human behavior as it relates to architecture and the built environment. The first is the determination to preserve the mall as it is, a “grand and imperial city that overawes tourists.” I cannot explain this, but perhaps a century of collective memory has generated a vast cultural value for the mall. We all know what the capitol looks like and stands for, and perhaps there is the implication that changing the physical structure of the city will change the non-physical status and values of the country and people it represents.

What is also interesting is the idea of postcard D.C. being placed above human D.C. This notion reinforces current trends of our society’s obsession with the image and the belief that the way things look is more important than the way they actually are. As technological development has accelerated, this trend has become more prevalent. The camera is often viewed as an infallible observer, the only device capable of capturing the truth. Further, these images can be transported far greater distances and to greater numbers of people than raw experiences can. Even if one has never been to D.C. or the mall, they are likely to have seen dozens if not hundreds of images of the capitol.

This value placed on digital tools and images over experience and real space extends further into architecture and urbanism. Many new developments are planned from a birds-eye view using aerial images, a position that could not be further removed from the people who walk the streets. Architectural projects are often sold on the merits of the rendered images, 2D graphics of the way something may look, but not how it will actually be for users to occupy.

I suppose what is most interesting about monumentalism is the idea that the value of a city can be contained in, and defined by, images. This absurb, but not impossible, proposition reminds me of Colonel Korn in Catch-22 who is perpetually obsessed with aerial photographs of tight bomb patterns. The photographs, in fact, are far more important that if the bombs even hit the target.

Perhaps preserving the monumentalism of D.C. helps to preserve the grandiose ideals and optimism of the 20th Century, an attempt to counterbalance the turmoil and schizophrenia of the modern world by seeing a different, and familiar, built reality. What do you think?

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