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Modern Monumentality

Elizabeth Kostina

Sert, Leger, and Giedion, in Nine Points of Monumentality,define a monument as a “human landmark…[for] ideals, for their aims, and for their actions.”[1] They also interpret the monument as an “expression of man’s highest cultural needs,” which represents collective consciousness.[2] As such, a monument can only exist or ‘be’ when there is a “collective consciousness and unifying culture,” something that they believe is absent in the modern architectural age.[3] Thus, the monument is the physical paradigm of a type of spiritual, collective stability - which is itself bounded by economic and sociopolitical factors. The monument typology is thus unique from the general category of ‘architecture’ in that it is purposely intended to be a marker of endurance through space, time, and “past and the future.”[4] Architectural style, then, one can imply is intended to be a ‘temporary’ reflection of societal values. The face of a city, a country, can change and architecture is a proxy that relays these ‘facial expressions.’ This, however, seems paradoxical; to erect a monument is to serve the particular ‘spirit’ of the time; a spirit that can only be justified through a relatively stable collective consciousness, which is usually marked by a rather unified architectural facade as it is the transmitter of contemporary societal beliefs.

If we simplify the conception of modern architecture into a strict functionally aesthetic form then we can understand Sert’s argument as perhaps a ‘plea’ to return to architecture - which reciprocates and creates collective consciousness - to a ‘temporary’ state as opposed to totally fleeting, loosely bounded moments of anomiebecause these periods “have been unable to create lasting monuments.”[5] It is these modern periods, by Sert’s logic, which have washed away ‘unique cultural identifiers’ and thus, do not allow for contemporary expression, which, in some ‘stability’ could produce a truly ideal, lyrical monument.[6] These monuments cannot exist because “those who govern...are not able to recognize the creative forces of our period,” and this is emblematic - not so much of total loss - but of a fading of societal identity.[7]

However, Sert et. al resolve the paradox through the postwar change that they identity - that “people want the buildings that represent their social and community life to give more than functional fulfillment.”[8] This transitions us from the previously established dichotomy of monument and architecture and leads to ‘monumental architecture.’ Thus, I interpret monumental architecture as a hybrid architectural and monument expression emerging post-war. This new aesthetic is driven both by modern materials but also in the space and planning around the building. This spatial novelty as noted, “does not exist,” and only with such a planned space “can the new urban centers come to life.”[9]

Oscar Neimeyer, on the other hand, notes that his support of  plastic architecture solicits defensive reactions “which they want strictly functional.”[10] He supports “an almost unlimited plastic freedom,” that can accommodate “moods of ecstasy, reverie, and poetry.”[11] This is opposed to the previous point of view which identified a post-war shift from functional, and which argues for a more solid, bounded architectural form to create cohesive social identities (and vice versa), which then lends itself to creating ‘true’ monuments. Neimeyer revels in this freedom of expression - plasticism itself a style (if we follow Loos’ logic in that ‘no style’ is also a style) - and declares that he fears “no contradiction of form with technique and function...architecture is not just a matter of engineering, but an exteriorization of mind, imagination, society.”[12] Neimeyer’s National Congress Building in Brasilia fortifies his claims for plasticism as both being modern and capable of creating monumentality. The building, as Neimeyer notes, was created in reference to society, considered through simplistic forms and volumes, and “especially the intention of endowing it with a character of great monumentality.”[13] This is an architectural monument - a piece that, as noted by Sert, is a “human landmark…[for] ideals.”[14] Further, the forms of the 3 palaces denote the lyricism that Sert had lamented the loss of and “were original and their own.”[15] Had Neimeyer been limited by a strict typology, it is likely he would not have been able to express “the same plastic intention, the same love of curves and richly refined forms.”[16]

(It is legitimate to argue that this is Neimeyer’s individual perspective of the building - and the building is not as monumental as he prescribes it to be. However, I think it is fair to identify the Congress building as a unique form that, subjectively speaking, Neimeyer could not have constructed when bound to a typology as advocated for by Sert et. al.)

In conclusion, there is some tension between monument and modern (post-war) architecture as monument. Neimeyer rejects ‘academic’ architecture in favor of a plastic freedom. The National Congress Building which he designed supports his claim and the 3 palaces, through “harmonious curves” and “lightness and freedom of creation” found new, unique forms that were “designed above all to withdraw the visitor.”[17] Sert et. al advocated for a return to typology from which the monument emerges, but ultimately recognize a ‘transition’ that accommodates the ‘monumental architecture’ they see emerging post-war.

 

[1]J.L Sert, et al., “Nine Points on Monumentality,”in Architecture Culture: 1943-1968; a Documentary Anthology ed. by Joan Ockman  (New York: Rizzoli, 2000), 29.

[2]Ibid.

[3]Ibid.

[4]Ibid.

[5]  Ibid.

[6]Ibid.

[7]Ibid, 30.

[8]  Ibid, 29.

[9]Ibid, 30.

[10]Oscar Neimeyer, “Form and Function in Architecture,” in Architecture Culture: 1943-1968; a Documentary Anthology ed. by Joan Ockman (New York: Rizzoli, 2000), 309.

[11]Ibid, 311.

[12]Ibid, 311.

[13]Ibid, 311.

[14]“Nine Points on Monumentality,” 29.

[15]“Form and Function in Architecture,” 312.

[16]Ibid, 313.

[17]Ibid.