Dezeen Magazine

Robert E Lee statue, Charlottesville

"The architectural world seems to be responding to Charlottesville with deafening silence"

When neo-Nazis are marching in the streets, architects need to step up and confront the issues surrounding colonial monuments, argues Phineas Harper.

Baying neo-Nazis grasping flaming torches on the steps of the University of Virginia's Rotunda, designed by president-turned-architect, Thomas Jefferson in the 1820s, was the chilling prelude to the events of Saturday 12 August 2017 in Charlottesville.

The fascists came from far afield in an organised display of white-supremacist hatred that left 19 injured, one murdered, two troopers dead in a helicopter crash and America reeling. At the heart of their stated mission was a local authority planning decision – the proposed removal (and sale) of a poorly executed bronze statue depicting a defeated Confederate general made 59 years after the end of the civil war.

The extraordinary events of Charlottesville have revealed the terrifying emboldenment of white supremacism under President Trump and show that the question of memorialisation in public space has become the most incendiary architectural debate of our time.

The demolition of monuments is as much a symbolic act as their erection and just as old. From the British destruction of Beijing's Gardens of Perfect Brightness amid the second Opium War to ISIS bombing the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul two months ago, monuments have been made and torn down to further political projects of all creeds.

The question of memorialisation in public space has become the most incendiary architectural debate of our time

Recent iconoclastic campaigns, however, are not set against a backdrop of imperial war. They are instead taking place domestically, as populations wrestle with the appropriate manner to reflect on the dark moments and contested figures of their past. My question is this: where on earth are architects in this discussion? The contemporary iconoclasm movement is no passing parochial fad, but marks a profound global shift in public agency over our streets. It wraps some of the most challenging discussions of colonialism, anti-racism and the built expression of public values into a fundamentally spatial problem. The design of the civic realm is at the absolute core of our expertise and yet the architectural world seems to be responding to this urgent conflict with deafening silence.

It cannot be to right to take a back seat, passively waiting for battles over public monuments to run their course, when acute suffering accompanies each struggle. How many neighbourhoods must endure mobs of neo-Nazis marching past their homes? How many antifascist demonstrators will be hurt or killed in the counter demonstrations? This is not a situation that should be left to fumble along in bursts of violence. It calls for urgent creative attention and bold proposals. It calls on architects not to step back, but to step up.

In 1991, Hungarian architect Ákos Eleőd began work on an open-air museum several miles outside Budapest's city centre, to relocate the city's many Soviet statues erected over decades of occupation. With the fall of the USSR, central and eastern European nations had entered protracted periods of rediscovering their cultural identity. As the Red Army had crept west, they had become trigger-happy makers of monuments to idealised workers, soldiers and the grandfathers of communism. Often the new sculptures would deliberately replace existing ones, expunging the folk memories that once resonated in those districts and supplanting them with Russian propaganda.

This situation calls for urgent creative attention and bold proposals. It calls on architects not to step back, but to step up

After the Berlin Wall fell, Budapest, like other Eastern Bloc cities, had to look at redesigning its urban landscape, which was now littered with concrete Lenins. The USSR had effectively controlled Hungary for half a century, perpetuating violent suppression, forced labour and man-made famines that left millions dead. Yet it also constituted a huge chapter in their nationhood and was thought of nostalgically by many, especially older generations. The statues were a schizophrenic symbol of both abject suffering and paternalistic care. The challenge was to detoxify the stain of Sovietism but in a nuanced way – a way which could be more sympathetic that the USSR's top-down rewriting of local history.

Eleőd's Memento Park, completed in 1993, is a calm but surreal space in which the giant frozen figures are arranged along six circular gravel paths. A free-standing neo-byzantine brick portico forms a gatehouse accommodating cubist sculptures of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. But it feels deliberately thin – a nod, not an endorsement.

The rest of the park is grand in scale, but not opulent. The statues are treated with basic curatorial respect but are not venerated. Even charging of an entry fee rather than relying on public subsidies seems like a carefully considered decision to establish the appropriate tone for these equivocal monuments. Memento Park is not necessarily the perfect model to be rolled out across the world but it demonstrates how architecture can navigate extreme political differences to articulate bitter moral conflict more effectively than language can.

"Nelson's Column should be next" thundered the Guardian in a predictably clickbaity attempt to test the logical next step after Charlottesville. It was a provocative thought experiment but the bullish reduction hard moral questions to a churlish "keep it" vs "knock it down" binary that is typical of a media-led public debate will ultimately fail to provide meaningful restitution on any side.

Even universally lionised heroes of the past measure up abysmally to the ethical expectations of subsequent generations. The Suffragettes' links to early British fascists are well known – should Emmeline Pankhurst's memorial in Westminster therefore face the chop? Mahatma Gandhi is recored to have harboured racist thoughts about Africans – should his statue in Nelson Mandela Square be removed as a similar one was at the University of Ghana?

Or what of George Washington? At the time of his death, 317 people were enslaved at Washington's family home, 153 of whom he owned personally. What coherent moral argument can necessitate the removal of a Robert E Lee statue but spare the founding father? Surely if Lee must fall then so must Mount Rushmore and the one dollar bill.

Barack Obama remains an inspiration to many. But it's not hard to imagine iconoclasts of the future citing the tens of thousands who died in Iraq during his presidency, or the waves of drone bombings he authorised in support of an Obama Must Fall campaign.

It is not possible to simplistically set an ethical bar when weighing the actions of a supposed hero's right to a plinth

It is not possible to simplistically set an ethical bar when weighing the actions of a supposed hero's right to a plinth in public space. This conception of human morality is too narrow. Context is crucial. Winston Churchill's statue might be acceptable in London's Parliament Square, but it would be sick in Dresden.

Eric Foner, professor of history at Columbia University, argues that commissioning should be considered and that the symbolic authenticity of the confederate statues is disingenuous, adding to the case against them. Many were built long after the civil war. Their rushed construction, Foner argues, was not about mourning dead soldiers, but really triumphalist intimidation of black Americans suffering under the infamous Jim Crow laws.

Architects must not stand on the edge of this debate. Our leaders are failing to bring forward effective proposals to deal promptly with our tainted public spaces, while our media frames the struggle in unsatisfactory terms. We cannot sit aside, letting the struggle play out as a series of deadly skirmishes, handing neo-Nazis easy opportunities to grab headlines and causing trauma to communities. Instead architects should pour creative energy into this issue, bring bold new ideas to the table and at the very least speak out against against those who turn our public spaces into platforms of hate.

Photograph shows the Robert E Lee statue in Charlottesville.