The towering folly of monuments

Millennium fever is leading to monuments being erected around the country at a frightening rate. Michael Evamy calls for more power to the people if they are to mean anything.

In the last few years, Britain has gone monument-mad. There are towers and domes and sculptures springing up all over the place. No one seems to be batting an eyelid. But do any of them mean anything? Is there a “right” way any more to commemorate people and events? And what is the future for memorials and monuments, when creating them has become so prone to controversy?

Monument madness is largely a product of millennium fever and the accompanying sales drives that every major city is engaged in. There are those landmarks directly related to the event like the Dome, the Millennium Wheel on the South Bank and numerous local landmarks such as the Millennium Tower in Portsmouth Harbour. But there are also major public art projects more removed from the millennium, such as Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North at Gateshead.

Most major new property developments now incorporate an obligatory original artwork, whether it’s a significant piece of sculpture or a stone engraving of Sainsbury’s.

Monument madness infected the Royal Society of Art’s otherwise excellent Student Design Awards this year: its Environment section included three briefs to design commemorative “masts”.

Two years from now, the landscape, particularly around cities, will be littered with monuments to the millennium. Businesses and public authorities all want to leave their mark, and an apparently public-spirited gesture, such as hoisting a hi-tech mast or giving a local artist something to do, is a highly visible, cheap way to do it.

Many of these works are inexpensive substitutes for a corporate identity, designed to be “symbolic of [insert city]’s regeneration”, when in fact they are nothing more than three-dimensional logos to be reproduced ad nauseam on municipal literature and local company brochures. Portsmouth’s Millennium Tower – a 165m-high mast with sailing references and a viewing platform from which to view the splendid urban sprawl below – is a typical example.

Critics of the Angel of the North have branded it a symbol of the Blairite age, a hugely inflated figure meaning nothing to people at large. The inspired attempt to hoist a giant replica of Alan Shearer’s Newcastle shirt on to its back was a poignant attempt to reclaim public art for the public. Public art and architecture have become tools of social and economic engineering, the Millennium Dome being the most colossal example.

It’s a monumental shame to see the arts systematically drained of their substance in this way, and to face the prospect of an urban landscape littered with monuments devoid of real meaning. Certainly, some of these landmarks are demanding feats of engineering to be admired, and in genuinely resurgent areas, some citizens will share a boost to civic confidence that a significant addition to their skyline will generate.

But the point is, no one can seriously expect the public to throng as one behind these corporate edifices. It is unrealistic to erect a monument to a person or an event and expect universal acclaim for the deed, because there are no universally held beliefs any more.

No one argued with Nelson’s Column because everyone loved Nelson. Now society is totally different, yet the sponsors of public art still aim for what they see as the next best thing: if their sculpture or landmark can’t be loved by everyone, then it should offend the least number of people possible. The product, in artistic terms, is invariably rubbish.

The closest modern equivalent to Nelson is Diana, Princess of Wales. Not everyone in the country adored her – many just remained ambivalent – but she had few positive enemies. And yet, erecting a monument to her memory is proving incredibly fraught. Everyone wants to do the right thing. Everyone agrees there should be a memorial, but no one can say how to do it. Tubs of margarine, porcelain dolls, memorial gardens: what should it be?

Whenever a new plan or product gets proposed, hordes throw up in their hands in horror. The buttoned-up residents of the London Borough of Kensington & Chelsea showed uncharacteristic passion recently in rejecting the plan for a 10 million memorial garden in Kensington Gardens – the place that became a flower-strewn shrine after Diana’s death.

Such is the red-raw sensitivity to suggested plans for a permanent memorial, it may take an outsider to the heated debate here to come up with a fitting plan. How about an Italian living in New York? Gaetano Pesce, the Italian designer best known for his extraordinary amorphous furniture designs but whose theme is the human spirit, has reportedly had a design accepted by the Paris city authorities.

His Diana Memorial Column would be an above-ground continuation of the pillar in the traffic tunnel into which Diana’s Mercedes crashed. The lower part would be in concrete, like the pillar below, but the upper part of the 4m column would be made of translucent resin, almost invisible by day, but glowing at night. “The resin is flexible, soft, organic,” says Pesce. “It’s like a part of the body. It’s feminine, like Diana.” If it goes ahead – and Pesce claims to have the support of Diana’s friends – it will be the first on-site memorial to the Princess and would transform the Place de l’Alma, the small city park that has become a shrine since the fateful night last August.

Hardly daring to stick their heads above the parapet, the art and architecture group Fat (fashion architecture taste), has come up with its own idea: the Princess Diana Millennium Bridge. It is one of a number of Fat projects that deal with the creation of memorials and monuments. The Diana Bridge concept hasn’t a hope of being realised, but it is worth dreaming about. It proposes a “living monument” to Diana, by building a rusticated base across the Thames between St Pauls Cathedral and the new Tate Gallery, and transplanting on to it a strip of the Althorp estate, grass, trees, lake and all: “A replica of Samuel Lapidge’s 18th century landscape where Diana played as a girl.”

“It just came out of an interest in architecture having some sort of symbolic role,” says a Fat spokesman. “[Diana’s death] was a major populist event, and this was to see if architecture could express that somehow. Most London bridges are very similar, with that rhetoric of structural engineering. They’re just about getting across the river, and that is elevated to become the whole subject matter of the structure. But this was trying to make one with some kind of cultural language.”

Subject matter – ie, having some – is what distinguishes Fat from the mass of straighter architectural groups and contributors to monument madness. It has even developed its own International Millennium Monument – a string of landmarks along the Thames replicating monuments from around the world: from the Taj Mahal in Marlow to the Eiffel Tower in Gravesend. “Special boat tours take visitors the length of the Thames, guiding them through Britain’s influence on international history, and celebrating Britain’s international future.” Fat is a situationist: it likes to create meaning by recreating objects, actions and events in changed circumstances.

The most prescient of the group’s experiments with monuments took place on Holly Street Estate in Hackney. The estate faced demolition and, at a fête, residents had the chance to create their own private memorials. “We had a stall where you could come and pick up a flower and a label and you could create a memorial to something that was important to you around the estate. One girl had fallen off a swing there, someone had dropped their shopping and so on.”

As the process of creating shared, popular memorials and monuments becomes more and more arthritic, maybe this is a way forward: give people the tools to erect their own. It’s a path anyone dismayed by the hollow rhetoric of the Millennium Dome should follow. Fellow situationist and dance music duo the KLF, having released Fuck The Millennium on their own label last autumn, proposed a Great Northern Pyramid of the People built purely from old bricks brought along to an as yet unspecified site by members of the public. Their hope is to use 87 million bricks – one for every UK citizen born this century – to build a 90m-high pyramid. The KLF, under its latest name, K2 Plant Hire, promises to publish details on its website.

The Internet offers endless opportunities for people to take art and the commemoration of events and people into their own hands. Tap the words “Diana” and “memorial” into a search engine and vast lists of private memorial sites are presented. There are now several virtual cemeteries on the Web, offering anyone in the world the opportunity to leave a message for a loved one, and submit photographs, obituaries and reminiscences.

The biggest is World Gardens, The Virtual Cemetery, though Tombtown is a more educational and entertaining experience, where visitors can go to any of 1000 plots and read about the famous and not-so-famous, from Geoffrey Chaucer and Attila the Hun to Elvis, Felix the Cat and Mother Teresa.

In an age when no one can agree who, what or how to commemorate people and events, the do-it-yourself monument is surely the way ahead.

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