Non-Monument #1

My first non-monument is loosely based on the type basilica. In Rome the basilica was a public building used to hold courts as well as serve other civic functions. It was located in the center, and every Roman town had one.

Basilica of Pompeii, 120 BCE. Later the basilica defined the construction of many early churches. The structure of secular administration passed on to sacred.

Fresco showing cross section of Constantine’s St. Peter’s Basilica, 4th century. I selected the type as a starting point for my first excursion because it is simple, basic, and structurally expressive. Also it has a past, and as such it figures historical precedence. It might encourage some public use, or at least promote the idea of such use and the notion of a public that has common interest. Or it might serve no purpose whatsoever and stand stranded at its site, in the present, in the course of history. Still, every built structure is an assertion of some sort, and, if it endures, serves as a reminder of time, of change, of memory. Most, it provides an alternative construction to the structures that now dominate our lives, overwhelmingly commercial and residential. We need ways, and expressions of those ways, to remind ourselves we live together, that something might exist beyond our daily functions, our individual interests, desires that are merely personal.

My real inspiration, however, is Per Kirkeby, and in saying that I regret that I cannot capture  well the details, proportions, and sophistication of his brick structures.

Essentially a basilica is a rectangular building with parallel piered walls that create a central nave flanked by aisles and is closed on one or both ends by an apse, often circular, a place for a statue of authority—of the emperor—or where magistrates sat on a raised platform.

Ground plan of the basilica at Pompeii. In the churches an altar and the clergy took control of that elevated space. In both cases, authority dominated the interior and closed the procession of the piers. Also the basilicas had two levels of roofs, above the aisles and nave, allowing for windows at the upper level—a clerestory—to light the interior.

Mine is an open structure and lighting is not an issue, so the rafters extend in a continuous line. The building is completely symmetrical on a horizontal axis—all of us should try this at least once in our lives.

In fact it is a building that announces its structure and consists of nothing else. Highlighted, the notion of structure. And it is a design that separates the different structural elements and accents their difference—the brick walls against the gray grid at the second floor that holds the rafters, made of the same material, which could be steel or reinforced concrete or even wood. Two concrete slabs rest beneath the supporting walls, not needed in their entirety to support the piers, but which still present the element of foundation. The floor of the nave, however, like the surrounding area, has no structural need and is grass. There are no apses, and thus no closure.

The rafters do not meet at an apex, and as one walks around oblique views present different and changing intersections, or varying degrees of their absence.

The building might suggest a ruin, though it is intact and soundly constructed. There is no evidence it is caught in the process of decay—yet. Or it might suggest partial construction, a building rising, though, given the terms of its design, it has gone as far as it can go.

It could be scaled to any dimension, most practically with sides from 100 to 170 feet, the ends from 60 to 100, and a height from 50 to 85. It could also be made smaller and more intimate. If in an urban area, it would need some surrounding area. Or it could be placed by itself in a park in the midst of ample grounds. Use is up for grabs. It might host small formal gatherings or impromptu events—a wedding, some other ceremony, a planned civic speech, a spontaneous protest. But the nave, smallish, would not take large crowds, and its grass floor might have no other use than a picnic or a passing point for a jog or stroll. I can’t imagine how the slabs might be used and am curious, but whatever happens there would have the nature of being off to the side.

It is a non-monument because it is not dedicated to any event or person. Still, we want to believe something about ourselves that has permanence, value, and structure, that transcends our sometimes—often—fickle moods.

Public monuments must derive their authority from some unified vision—or its presumption. There are times in our country when a national mood of pride or hope sustains a confident language of public art.

Spiro Kostof, America by Design

The concept of monuments is problematic itself, however, especially in a democratic society, necessarily a process of differences and flux. We strive not to elevate one of us above another, and events that once gave us pride point instead to abuse and failure.

If monuments are meant to speak for the whole of society, if their function is to advertise common cultural ideals, it is no wonder the last twenty years have not been rich in public art. Many of us have grown incurably cynical about great national agendas, about the methods of forging a national consensus or promoting national ideals. We are leery of the coercive orders of the Right or Left that are brutally mounted abroad in the name of national unity; we are leery of personality cults.

Kosttof again, his words written in 1987

The division has only intensified in recent years, perilously, to the point of dysfunction, and there seems to be no common ground. It is difficult now to look back, or forward. And statues are coming down. Some humility and sober recognition might be in order before we remove. Our faults and limitations will always stain our best intents, now as in the past.

My non-monument does have a western root, some two thousand years old, which would both be recognized and would need to be debated. Hopefully, it would inspire the creation of structures with other sources for comparison.

Its character is ambiguous, and I can’t decide myself. One moment it appears somber and regimented, hinting at authority or fixed spirituality. The next it is open and dynamic, encouraging assembly, similar thoughts without constraint. Likely, our impressions of it would change as we change.

In fact that is how I see the non-monument, as a structure that encourages a debate of assertion and questioning of assertion. If it is not complete, we need to think how that might best be done. Or we come to terms with a process that never is complete but requires constant examination.

As with any monument—or non-monument—we might do well to recall William James’s words dedicating Saint-Gaudens’s monument to Colonel Robert Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment:

The deadliest enemies of nations are not their foreign foes; they always dwell within their borders. And from these internal enemies civilization is always in need of being saved. The nation blest above all nations is she in whom the civic genius of the people does the saving day by day, by acts without external picturesqueness; by speaking, writing, voting reasonably; by smiting corruption swiftly; by good temper between parties.

Cited in Susan Neiman, Learning from the Germans.

Basilica images via Wikipedia.

Per Kirkeby image via ArchDaily.

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