Building the Present
Within a few days, the protests and riots which took place following the death of George Floyd in the United States led to acts of vandalism against some historic statues and monuments. These acts rapidly spread to other cities all over the world, fired by a revisionist drive to eliminate all those symbols present in public spaces that might be interpreted as being linked, in one way or another, to racism or colonialism. In London, for example, the statue of such a historically important figure as Winston Churchill had to be covered, protected with sheets of metal, and guarded by the police, while prime minister Boris Johnson issued a stern warning to those wishing to remove it.
The idea of reviewing our built environment to eradicate everything that doesn’t concur with present-day views is very conflictive and the ultimate consequences of such behaviour are difficult to predict. Cities are built over time, during the course of different periods of history. Old layouts are retained, new ones are proposed, buildings are used for different purposes as new needs arise, monuments are erected, etc. There is a sense of continuity, while at the same time cities evolve to meet the collective needs of their citizens. Another thing that evolves with the passage of time is the meaning of the monuments which constitute part of a city’s memory. The Pantheon in Rome, for example, interests us for what it is much more than for what it originally symbolised. Similarly, monuments dedicated to historic figures also form part of our memory of the past. They speak to us of the spirit of the age in which they were built, and trying to find present-day ethical models in them would be as tedious as it is absurd.
The pulling down of statues we’ve witnessed over the past few days, however, seems clearly to indicate a lack of agreement over public space. Part of the population is unhappy with certain physical symbols from the past and feels excluded by them. This invites us to reflect on the difficulties present-day democratic societies can experience in reaching a collective consensus regarding symbology in public space. The population is more heterogeneous than ever. It’s plural, with diverse thoughts, ideologies, and religious beliefs. Perhaps, then, the most dramatic thing is not the destruction of certain monuments but the incapacity to erect new ones that can be shared by everyone.
In order to keep changing and retain their vitality, cities need to build their present propositively. They need to understand their historical legacy as a starting point from which to keep evolving. They need to consider the present as just another period, like those which have preceded it, a period which will leave its own legacy and thereby add new layers of meaning. Although it’s very difficult, our age has the duty to erect new monuments capable of expressing the will of contemporary society and endowing public space with a civic dimension.
Destroying our built memory only means losing our identity and our awareness of the past.
Text translated by Andrew V.Taylor