The Post-Modern Cult of Monuments


Publication History:

“The Postmodern Cult of Monuments.”  Future Anterior 4, no. 2 (2007): 51-63. Spanish translation in Mario Carpo, El Ascenso: el culto posmoderno a los monumentos. Santiago of Chile: Ediciones ARQ, 2020 (with a new preface, pp. 6-14).

The text posted here is an earlier draft and it may be different from the published version. Please only cite from copy in print

Since the first dominion of men was asserted over the ocean, three thrones, of mark beyond all others, have been set upon its sands : the thrones of Tyre, Venice, and England. Of the First of these great powers only the memory remains ; of the Second, the ruin ; the Third, which inherits their greatness, if it forget their example, may be led through prouder eminence to less pitied destruction. 

(…)  [Venice] is still left for our beholding in the final period of her decline : a ghost upon the sands of the sea, so weak—so quiet,—so bereft of all but her loveliness, that we might well doubt, as we watched her faint reflection in the mirage of the lagoon, which was the City, and which the Shadow.

I would endeavour to trace the lines of this image before it be for ever lost, and to record, as far as I may, the warning which seems to me to be uttered by every one of the fast-gaining waves, that beat, like passing bells, against the Stones of Venice.[1](*

The resounding opening of John Ruskin’s Stones of Venice (1851-53) epitomizes the nineteenth-century notion of what monuments are and what they should do.  Ruskin turned a whole city as a monument: literally, a warning, an example, and a beacon meant to instruct and inspire, to change the course of history and to guide us toward a better destiny.  The same evocative power of objects, and of built and natural landscapes, and their capacity to conjure up meaningful historical narratives form the basis for Ruskin’s equally famous “Lamp of Memory” (1849),[2] and would be systematized half a century later by Alois Riegl’s seminal taxonomy of monuments, Der moderne Denkmalkultus.[3] Riegl’s categories held sway throughout most of the twentieth century and it appears that they often still do, albeit at times unknowingly and uncritically.

Interest in Riegl’s theories has risen with the recent revival of architectural interest in monuments, which in turn is part of the vast process of reassessment and reevaluation of iconicity and symbolism in architectural design that started with architectural postmodernism thirty years ago.  Architectural postmodernism  posited that architectural signs may refer to meanings outside architecture proper, by dint of visual similarity (iconicity) or cultural associations (symbolism).  This is exactly what monuments were traditionally meant to do, hence it stands to reason that architectural monuments, which suffered under the rule of modernist ethics, sobriety, and iconoclasm, should thrive again under the influence of postmodernist thought.[4]  Architectural Postmodernism is one of the ideological sources of the current renewal of memorial architecture, and this pertains both to new architectural signs designed as monuments, as well as to the memorialization of pre-existing objects.  Indeed, there is a certain logic in that the ongoing reverse engineering of twentieth-century modernity should bring us back to an auroral state of modernity, namely, to Ruskin’s and Riegl’s respective Romantic and late-Romantic, theories of history.  Yet independent from the ideological content of contemporary memorial programs, the architectural materialization of such programs, and their specific use of objects, buildings, and places for memorial purposes, may be today partially flawed, and ineffective at best, on account of two related changes that occurred in last thirty years: one cultural, one technical.

Cultural obsolescence

The cultural argument first.  This has to do with our current philosophy of history, or rather our lack thereof.  In philosophy, postmodernism does not mean the same as in architectural theory; this variance may lead to two very different, and possibly opposite views of architectural monuments and of their functions.  Lyotard’s Post-Modern Condition, only a couple of years after Charles Jencks’s Post-Modern Architecture,[5] which architects tend to know best, was mostly about what we now call “the fragmentation of master narratives”;[6] the decay of all centralized systems (ideological, social, and technological) was central to the critique of what was then called the post-industrial society,[7] and after the fall of the Berlin Wall the postmodernists’ end of history[8] was famously re-interpreted by the neo-conservative Francis Fukuyama as the end of ideologies, and the end of the most pervasive of all modern ideologies, Hegel’s philosophy of history. [9]

Historicism was the framework within which Ruskin’s and Riegl’s notions of monuments came to light and thrived, and indeed a precondition for their very existence.  Riegl’s definitions of “historical” and “ancient” monuments posit a belief in directional history, and presuppose an oriented line of progress (and in the case of Ruskin, an organic simile of rise and decline) within which the modern subject can assess its relative position, take stock of the past, and get ready for the next great leap forward.  This once transparent topography of history may have been lost to the consciousness of post-modern subjects, but if so, we should also admit that as a side effect, historical monuments may have been stripped of one of their primary functions.  New monuments can have no power of historical orientation within the postmodern vision of history, as it no longer provides any preset line of progress along which historical signs may clearly be situated: as in Fukuyama’s Hegelian metaphor of the train, of which some wagons arrive sooner and some later but all on the same track and towards the same destination,[10] it may well be that, as post-modern rails multiply indefinitely, there may be fewer travelers waiting at any station at any given time—or even no travelers at all.

The Eiffel Tower was built—among many other things—to celebrate technological progress, and as a monument to the seventy-two engineers, scientists and inventors whose names are inscribed on its metal arches: thinkers whose work, directly or indirectly, made the construction of the tower possible, and an iconic indication of more to come following their example, and furthering their research.  The only twentieth-century monument in Paris that can compare with the Eiffel Tower’s popular appeal is, within walking distance of the Tower itself, the so-called memorial to Lady Diana’s fatal car accident (a nineteenth century monument which in fact pre-existed the event and was recycled as a monument to Lady Diana in the aftermath of the accident).  This comparison may suggest that, between the times of Gustave Eiffel and those of Lady Diana, the ideological and cultural fields where the monument’s semantic functions resided may have shifted, and that the new field may be objectively reduced in scope and social import.  Architectural monuments, which were a vital component of European intellectual life at the end of the nineteenth century, are only marginal cultural players at the end of the twentieth; in true postmodern fashion, their power of incitement to action, in so far as any of it may still exist, seems now reduced to the ambit of micro-narratives, micro-histories, and micro-cultures.

To cite another example that likewise highlights the fading social perception of progress (particularly in its most easily quantifiable testimony, which is technological advancement), the Alpine valleys leading to the Fréjus, or Cenis Rail Tunnel, as well as many neighboring towns and villages in Piedmont and Savoy, are sprinkled with monuments to Germain Sommeiller, the heroic engineer who designed the tunnel and inaugurated it in 1870.  The global consequences of computer connectivity at the end of the twentieth century are probably comparable with those that Alpine tunnels had at the end of the nineteenth; yet it is not known that any brick-and-mortar monument may have been dedicated to the inventor of the Internet, whoever he or she may be.

Contrary to their raison d’être in the nineteenth century, monuments today seem to be unwilling to provide historical role models, and this abdication of responsibility is in fact already inherent in most of the current memorial practices: contemporary monuments have long stopped celebrating great deeds, as their specialty is to register grave errors; they do not exalt achievement, but deplore abominy; and—at least, in non-socialist countries—it seems we can hardly honor any act of valor accomplished after the end of World War II: the heroes we now tend to remember are most often the innocent victims of someone else’s crimes. Most of today’s monuments seem to be reduced to the basic, primaeval, and, as Riegl asserted, timeless function of the most ancient of all “intentional” monuments: to mark the graves of the dead, or to remember their burial.  Monuments can no longer point to the future because the postmodern construction of history does not provide one, or it provides too many.  Historical monuments  have no place in post-historical times.


Technological inadequacy

As for the second point mentioned above: after cultural fallacy, a (related) technical one.  The Romantic definition of monuments as totemic catalysts and activators of memory expected and prompted the simultaneous presence of the monument and of the admonished (one, or more often many) in the same public place.  The performative ritual of the act of remembering posited first, the need to go somewhere, and then the direct physical experience, optic or haptic, of the original monument.  Remembrance was predicated upon, and activated by, the experience of a special place or object, often remote or unique, and the view, or vision, of something special.  Not coincidentally, the rise of this quest for “experiential travel” is coeval with the development of mass transportation in the nineteenth century.  Pilgrims, and grand-tourists, were in the process of becoming mass tourists.  Of course mass transportation is still a paradigm of modern life, and even of postmodern life, for that matter.  Yet this paradigm of the mechanical age is increasingly countered by another conflicting paradigm that was started by electricity, then amplified by electronics over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. 

Electronic technologies of transmission, or transference, are already competing with the older mechanical paradigms of transportation in many aspects of life.  No need to go there if the original, or a digital reproduction of it, may come here.[11]  And as copyright lawyers and computer hackers know, the electronic distribution of works of art and of their digital copies is already blurring the traditional distinction between originals and reproductions: digital technologies are mostly indifferent to Walter Benjamin’s auratic requirements .  The combined effects of electronic transference (instead of the traditional need for mechanical displacement) and of digital replication (instead of the traditional authority of the original) is tolling the knell of many traditional memorial practices and fostering the rise of some new ones.  As in contemporary media art, the transition from the mechanical to the electronic paradigm has already spawned several generations of hybrids: digital technologies have been merged with or included in traditional memorial programs, ostensibly to complement them or to extend their outreach.  But the odd outcomes of these new tools for digitally enhanced mourning, at times tacky or macabre, also emphasize the rift between old and new memorial practices and cultural technologies.[12]  The new information technologies will inevitably remove some deeply rooted memorial traditions from physical space: they will de-spatialize some material repositories of memories, as well as the acts of remembrance that such repositories were meant to ignite.  The memorial practices that will decline are those that used to require physical presence in unique, particular or special places.  Those that are on the rise are supported by electronic media, and depend upon stimuli that are by definition transmissible and replicable.  This pattern suggests that monuments in stone may be destined to play a lesser role in the future than they have in the past.  They will most likely be replaced by music, voices, words, and all that can be digitally recorded, transmitted and reenacted.  In fact, to some extent this is already happening.[13]


Uneasiness and Frenzy

Of course, in spite of significant cultural and technical reasons why monuments no longer function today as they did a century ago, when their influence and role climaxed, the irrational fascination with the magical power of some places—including their power to activate memories—has a long and dignified tradition in the West, and there is no reason why this belief should not persist in some form.  The Romans called it “genius loci,” the Christians inherited it; the Reformation fought against it, as it deemed this belief a superstition, a relic of paganism, and a possible source of idolatry; the Counter-Reformation defended it, within some limits.  Modern science and technology are fundamentally averse to this notion, as both presuppose a neutral space—contrary to the Aristotelian tradition of places, or topoi, of which some may differ from others.  Some twentieth-century thinkers who took an ideological stance against modern science and technology revived this tradition, and architectural phenomenologists have been particularly active in advocating a born-again power of places, which includes their symbolic and memorial functions.  Severed from its ideological motivations, this trend contributed to the wider search for memorial functions in Postmodernist architecture and urban design, which led to a brief renaissance of monuments in the 1980s and 1990s.

At the same time, it is also evident that the monuments produced by Postmodernist architects are now pervaded by some nagging feelings of discomfort and unease.  Again, this pertains to both sides of the matter: to the design of new, “intentional” monuments as well as to the monumentalization of pre-existing objects and to the ensuing policies for their preservation—an entirely different subject which cannot be discussed here, other than to suggest that it may be subject to the same contradictions and aporias that underpin the postmodern notion of monuments as a whole.  Evidence of the tensions that characterize a phase of transition is already apparent in one of the texts that marked the beginning of the current culture of monuments.  In the preface to first volume of the first edition of his seminal Lieux de Mémoire (1984), Pierre Nora envisaged a collection of “memory places,” in his words, ranging from the most concrete sense of the term to the most abstract intellectual constructions, which included dictionaries, books, songs, and even Général de Gaulle, considered as the “master totem of our memories.”[14]  But in the conclusion to the last volume of the series, eight years later, the same author complains that the popular success of his formula, “memory places”, has been built upon a fundamental misunderstanding, and belies a notion of which “the heuristic interest resided in the dematerialization of ‘places’, intended as symbolic instruments.”[15]  In fact, Nora’s memory places were conceived as places within our minds, as in the classical and Renaissance art of memory; instead, they became universally confused with topographical places that generate memories; or, simply, as monuments in the Romantic tradition.  They became victims of the Postmodernist cult of brick-and-mortar monuments.

Another symptom of the same uneasiness may be the resistance to the very use of the term “monument,” which in French for example has been replaced in most cases by the almost synonymous “mémorial”, without any perceivable semantic shift.[16]  Some fifteen years ago another ersatz was also tentatively introduced, “historial,” apparently a conflation of “historique” and “mémorial”—a neologism that apparently failed to catch on.[17]  A similar shift from “monument” to “memorial” happened in English—witness the title of the very same conference session where an early version of this paper was presented.[18] The polemics concerning the German name of Peter Eisenman’s Holocaust Memorial in Berlin—now officially called, solomonically, both Denkmal and Mahnmal—attest to the onomasiological discomfort generated by the reuse of such ideologically loaded terms as monument (in English) and, in German, Denkmal, the very term Riegl used in 1903.[19]

Additionally, it is noteworthy that, in spite of the prominent Postmodernist revival of architectural monuments from pre-modern times, a strong modernist tradition of anti-monumental “living memorials” still carries on relatively unabated.  In 1938 Lewis Mumford famously claimed, “if [this] is a monument it is not modern, and if it is modern, it cannot be a monument.”[20]  This statement is often quoted out of context: its original meaning was more specific than it appears, as Mumford was discussing only funerary monuments, and the related cult of death; his stance against monumental burials was part of his sermon on the modern “necropolis” and the anti-organic bias of the mechanical civilization at large.  Mumford did admit, however, that he saw no evil in the dedication of some public facility (“a hospital or a power station or an air beacon”) as a memorial to a person or an event (“what will make the hospital (…) a good memorial is that it has been well designed for the succor of those that are ill (…), not the fact that it has taken form out of a metaphysical belief in the fixity and immortality and positive celebration of death.”)[21]  Today, airports are the hottest commodity in the memorial facility business, followed by museums and libraries: hospitals seem to have dropped out of favor. 

Evidently, the often ephemeral coupling of a person’s name with a public building can do little additional harm to the building itself, regardless of the controversies surrounding the person or the building, taken individually.  On the contrary, the endurance and even resurgence of the Postmodernists’ understanding of semantics, which is a revival of Riegl’s Romantic historicism, may have more harmful consequences.  Hopefully, these useless monuments will be simply destined to invisibility—in Mumford’s own words, “heaps of stones […] in the busy streets of our cities, completely irrelevant to our beliefs and demands.”[22]  For, should such monuments indeed come to function again, then we should come to the conclusion that the memorial programs for which they stood, which were dominant in Europe at the dawn of the twentieth century, may have also been revived, and their content may be reenacted.  Given the current frenzy of nationalistic discourse in Europe, the orgy of national anthems, flags, and military pageants that is sweeping the capitals of the old continent, and the political programs based on the quest for racial and national identities that are being openly discussed in many European Parliaments, this is not an impossible development.


* An earlier version of this essay was presented at the session “Memorials No More. Desecration, Destruction, Iconoclasm, Neglect,” chaired by Andrew M. Shanken at the 60th annual meeting of the Society of Architectural Historians, Pittsburgh, PA, April 13, 2007.  I am thankful to Andrew Shanken for his helpful feedback and advice, and to Megan Spriggs for comments, suggestions and editorial help. 

[1] John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice, vol. I, The Foundations (London: Smith, Elder and Co., and New York: J. Wiley, 1851), 1-2.  

[2] Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1849), chap. vi.

 [3] Aloïs Riegl, K.-k. Zentral-Kommission für Kunst- und historische Denkmale. Der moderne Denkmalkultus.  Sein Wesen und seine Entstehung (Vienna [etc.]: Braumüller, [1900-]  1903). Available in English as “The Modern Cult of Monuments:  Its Character and Its Origin,” trans. Kurt W. Forster and Diane Ghirardo, Oppositions 25 (Fall 1982):  20-51.

[4] See below, note 20.

[5] Charles A. Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (London: Academy Editions, 1977; and New York, Rizzoli, 1977); Jean-François Lyotard, La condition Post-Moderne (Paris: Les éditions de Minuit, 1979). 

[6] Lyotard spoke of the “décomposition des grand Récits,” or “métarécits” (La condition Post-Moderne, 31).

[7] On this, see in particular Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Capitalisme et schizophrénie; 2, Mille Plateaux (Paris: Les éditions de Minuit, 1980).

[8]  Which may have been first proclaimed by Jean Baudrillard, Simulacres et Simulations (Paris: Galilée, 1981), 62-76 (see in particular 70: “l’histoire est notre référentiel perdu, c’est-à-dire notre mythe”).  Baudrillard eventually refuted the then commonly accepted notion of an “end of history”: see in particular his L’illusion de la fin (Paris: Galilée, 1992). 

[9] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and The Last Man (New York: Free Press; Toronto: Maxwell Macmillan Canada, etc., 1992).  See also Fukuyama, “The End of History?” The National Interest 16 (Summer 1989): 3-18. 

[10] Fukuyama, The End of History and The Last Man (London: Penguin Books, 1992), 338-39.

[11] Paul Valéry famously anticipated a “company for the distribution of sensorial reality to every home,” (“Société pour la distribution de la Réalité Sensible à domicile”), similar to the distribution of water and electricity, in an essay of 1929.  See his “Conquête de l’ubiquité,” De la musique avant toute chose (Paris: éditions du Tambourinaire, 1929) 1-5: 2.  Valery’s brief text was originally written to advertise a new model of electrical phonograph.

[12] For example, Memory Medallions are digital devices capable of storing text, images and voice recordings in a medallion which can be affixed to a gravesite or elsewhere, customized and accessible on site and on-line: Memory Medallion, Inc,  “Memory Medallion®.  So Future Generations Will Know” (Waynesburg, PA, 2006), (accessed 14 July 2007).  Less commercial projects include Cemetery 2.0, “a concept for networked devices that connect burial sites to online memorials for the deceased,” Elliott Malkin, “Cemetery 2.0,” (March 2006)  and Michele Gauler, “Digital Remains,” (London, June 2006)  See also Eric Krangel, “Coming soon to a cemetery near you: high-tech tombstones,” (New York:  Columbia News Service, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, 12 December 2006);  and some institutional programs, such as the 9/11 Living Memorial, “an online interactive tribute commemorating the lives and stories of September 11”:  Voices of September 11th, “9/11 Living Memorial” (New Canaan, CT, n.d.) (All websites accessed 14 July 2007).

[13]  The extension and intensity of the fragments of sensorial experience that can be digitally recorded and transmitted (and in fact recreated, including the possibility of interacting with them) is steadily increasing together with bandwidth and processing power.   Already, one may surmise that a wealth of historical video and sound recordings of Général de Gaulle’s memorable speeches (available via a variety of public and amateur websites) may contribute to the memory of Général de Gaulle’s life and achievements more effectively than the ritual pilgrimages to his tomb at Colombey-les-Deux-églises, where the first stone of a Mémorial Charles-de-Gaulle was laid on the 36th anniversary of the Général’s death on November 9, 2006 (inauguration planned for 2008: see “Pose de la première pierre du Mémorial Charles-de-Gaulle,” (Paris, Présidence de la République, 10 November 2006) (accessed 20 July 2007).

[14] Pierre Nora, “Introduction,” Les lieux de mémoire, vol. I, La République, ed. Pierre Nora (Paris: Gallimard, 1984), xiii. 

[15] Nora, “L’ère de la commémoration,” Les lieux de mémoire, vol. III, Les France, 3, De l’archive à l’emblème, ed. Pierre Nora, (Paris: Gallimard, 1992), 977-1012, see in particular 1006. 

[16] See also La Confusion des monuments (Cahiers de Médiologie, 7), ed. Michel Melot (Paris: Gallimard, 1999).

[17] Historial de la Grande Guerre, designed by the architect Henri-Édouard Ciriani, opened to the public on August 1, 1992, “an international museum of comparative history” on the site of the Battle of the Somme in Picardy “L”historial de la Grande Guerre,” (France 2001) (accessed 20 July 2007).

[18] “Memorials no more.” See above.

[19]  See Hans-Georg Stavginski, Das Holocaust-Denkmal: der Streit um das “Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas” in Berlin (1988-1999) (Paderborn: Schöningh, 2002).  

[20] Lewis Mumford, “The Death of the Monument,” The Culture of Cities (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1938), vii, 6, 433-440: 438.  The modernist debate on monumentality (J.L. Sert, F. Léger, S. Giedion, Nine Points on Monumentality, 1943; J.L. Sert, Nine Points for a New Monumentality, 1944; S. Giedion,  The Need for a New Monumentality, 1944, etc.) is unrelated to the topic under discussion here.  That debate was mostly about the search for a new “monumental” status for modern architecture, based on size, rhetorical effects, and symbolism, which was invoked as a reaction against the anti-monumental understatement of the early modernists.

[21]  Mumford, The Culture of Cities, 440.

[22]  Ibid.



Future Anterior


“The Postmodern Cult of Monuments.”  Future Anterior 4, no. 2 (2007): 51-63