The Monument And Context Cultural Studies Essay

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Context is defined as the circumstances relevant to an event or fact Monument is something such as a statue or building, erected in commemoration of a person or event. To work in context, on a given site, is one parameter of architects, to work within the context of the profession of Architecture is another.

With the notion of context come connotations of the existing fabric; the locality, tradition and the vernacular condition. By embedding the intentions of a design within the essence of place a connection linking new and old can be made, transcending the built environment and creating a metaphysical connection with a place. As Adam Caruso writes:

Although architects cannot make vernacular structures one can attempt to recreate the processes through which the vernacular emerges in each project. In the place of invention, rhetoric and signification one can embrace convention, awkwardness and repetition. In this way buildings can achieve an auratic presence that comes through associative memory and direct experience. (Caruso1999:51)

Context can also be considered within the profession of architecture. Working as an elite body of thinkers, whose role it is to shape the built environment their ethics of practice will have an equal influence, if not greater, than the existing condition. Brent C. Brolin comments rather pessimistically about this obligation:

"It is not the commercial greed that destroys the city-scape, but the architects refusal to use the power of his professional status to lead clients to the aesthetically sound solutions." (Brolin 1980:13)4

From this it becomes apparent that both the existing contexts of an urban area, and the position of an architect within the context of the profession influence the outcomes of the design process equally.

Both Aldo Rossi and Spiro Kostof confront this duality of context in their writing. Rossi's (1982:126), Architecture of the city presents the notion that to respond to or to create in context is different to the ideas of building a Monument. Set this thought beside that of Kostof (2000:vii), who writes that the profession of architecture has arisen over time to "mediate" between the architects and their context, the people and places they work within, and an interesting dialogue opens up. Louis Hellman's somewhat satirical illustrations depicting the IMAGE of the ARCHITECT offer some insight into what both Kostof and Rossi are alluding to. Architecture is interwoven within our social context; it forms the background of our everyday lives, and is itself shaped by its surroundings, physically and professionally. Moreover the profession carries preconceived notions of what an "architect" should be. One of Hellman's illustrations portrays the architect is proclaimed as someone who brings notions of utopia to those in despair, a cure to all ill, their work a monument within the urban fabric, but also a monument for themselves, a calling card for the "hero" of design.

The impact of monument, their imposition into an urban fabric is obvious for all to see. What is less obvious is the impact the work of monumental architects has on the profession, and how it influences a culture of celebrity. This has its own impact on the built environment. Jeremy Till (2009:7-8) in Architecture Depends claims that the "autonomy of teaching and black box practice" of architects tends to cause an inversion in the concerns of an architect. Looking to peers and contemporaries instead of observing the places in which they work the context of architectural practice quickly becomes detached from the places it intends to reflect, and the people it serves.

So how did this happen? In history where did this shift from reflecting the monuments of place, to reflecting the monuments of profession occur? Was it with the Greeks, with the work of the revivalists, forming their architecture on the basis of styles and systems found in Ancient Greece, Italy and Egypt? Or is this debate much more recent than we think? (Glancey 2003)

Historical Context

It goes without saying that a radical change within the society we live in can and does reflect in the architecture of a culture. The Renaissance saw the beginnings of modern science and the liberation of man from fears of religion and the passing of the Black Death that had plagued Gothic and Medieval eras beforehand. With this came the need for a new approach to urbanism. On the basis of classical principles there were to be wide streets with vistas, the reinstatement of a grid to give order to urban space, and the use of squares to emphasise monument, but also for market places and domestic functions. (Schoenauer 1981:139) The end of the eighteenth century too brought great medical advances, the industrial revolution of the nineteenth brought new processes, functions and requirements to the tables of the architects, the well-being of the people did not advance in quite the same way. Peter Hall (1997:17) discusses the quality of living conditions in London at this time in the city of eternal night, a chapter of his book on modernist urban thinking.

"...' Every room in these rotten and reeking tenements houses a family, often two...Elsewhere is a poor widow, her three children, and a child who has been dead thirteen days." (Hall 1997 :17)

These problems of overpopulation, poor living conditions and social upheaval were not limited to London. Grand cities such as Paris and Washington had also succumbed to the eternal night. In crowed American cities inhabitants had taken to violent demonstrations as a result of the economic depressions at the turn of the 1900's along with the gross overcrowding of their urban centres.

Thus at the turn of the Fifteenth and Nineteenth Centuries there was a requirement of grand vision to restore urban centres to their former glory. It may be at this point we see the intervention of architecture in a self-reverential manner. At this time it is also possible to observe how the notions of a body of thinkers are transferred onto the landscape irrespective of the social or physical contexts in which they are placed. The notion of, and creation of these urban spaces was the first sign of truly monumental planning. This was to create spaces that inspired order and control, monuments both of their city, and a testimony to those who designed them, restoring order through notions of art and civic pride.

"Where a ruler had near absolute power, it was possible to apply these principles of renaissance planning. Medieval streets, which had been narrow and crooked, were now subjected to geometric clarifications...wide avenues... were cut through the intricate and intimate maze of medieval urban fabric." (Schoenauer

In Nineteenth Century America the notion of Grand, Monumental Civic planning was deemed to be the most appropriate means of urban design. At this time we see characters such as Daniel Burnham and Pierre L'Enfant impose grids and boulevards; controlled urban spaces instilled into a generation of urban thinkers at schools such as the Beaux Artes academy in Paris; whose teaching followed a doctrine of "Happy is the city governed by the laws of art" (Tunnard 1953:303). What followed was a systematic and rigorous sterilising of the contexts and landscapes of cities such as Paris and Washington, along with the grand planning of new cities such as Chicago.

The Chicago plan, a scheme to overhaul and theoretically make beautiful the city of Chicago is an effective summary of the intentions of monument in the urban city context, and the top-down vision of its planners and architects; both in their social perceptions of the city and their process of thinking. The plan itself presented an Elitist view of an aristocratic body of planners and architects, exerting power and influence onto the people and the landscape. Projecting their intentions of what an ideal city should be, full of notions that physical creation of objects which can inspire civic pride. James William Pattison summates this notion quite aptly:

"It is the mission of people of cultivated taste, who have faith and fore-sight, to educate these doubting Thomases and change their ideas." (Pattison 1913:643)

A similarly elitist view was executed by Haussmann in Paris. In building the Boulevard St. Michel he "tore through the ancient Latin Quarter... an almost autonomous entity...full of life and for which there was no justification for this drastic action." (Mumford, 1961, pp

The notion underpinning these plans was that through the creation of an impressive, imposing arrangement of the cities parts a sense of patriotism could be cultivated. Convinced that "all monuments make a powerful impression on the minds of men and women" (Mumford, 1961) the thinkers behind the City Beautiful movement and their plans for Chicago sought to create a core Civic Centre, an area around which imposing, monumental public buildings could be created, and in doing so creating a sense of pride in the city amongst its inhabitants, with this sense of pride overthrowing the civil unrest and poor quality of urban living at the time. (Mumford, 1961, pp. 386,388)

The illustrations by Jules Guerins chillingly summarise the intentions of the Chicago plan. With an emphasis on the landmarks of the city, the Plaza on Michigan and the Civic Centre, the central point of the radial routes scything in and out over the old city; they totally overlook the people in the space, insignificant squiggles of ink, drawn to gauge the scale and apparent grandeur of the scheme. More alarming still is the direct link between these illustrations and that of the Ideal City, first carried out by Piero della Francesca in 1470 and with a similar lack of population and activity. If anything both go some way to suggest that within the contexts of urban planning and architecture the thought processes central to urban planning have ill-advanced in over 2000 years. Urban thinking well into the 20th century, with ideas such as Corbusier's plans for the Radiant city and its proposed decimation of Medieval Paris, continued this regime with vast proposals of monumental scale intended to radically alter their surrounding urban condition, and with it the condition and welfare of their inhabitants.

"The Human scale of medieval Cities gradually vanished and was too readily exchanged for a monumental and impressive scale" (Schoenauer 1981:141)

The language of these movements, whilst believing that monument would create a communal sense of pride in the city in many senses had the opposite effect. Writing about part of the Chicago plan, Pattison comments on a vast roadway which will scythe through the city, disrupting the grain of the city simply for the convenience of the aristocracy:

"...the double roadway will benefit no one but the owners of automobiles and aristocrats in fine vehicles. This is to forget the vast array of men and women who come in do their days work. They themselves may never use the bridge, but the customers upon whom they depend, and cannot get along without, do bring business and money to these dependant wage earners." (Pattison 1913:643)

It is evident to see the potential for this Monumental urban thinking as a segregating device, forming a city based not on circumstance, but on class. With wealthier and therefore more influential members of a society able to manipulate and control not only the city they live in, but the lives of its inhabitants. The segregation of people on the basis of class is a device often observed in architecture, but typified with this notion of monument in the city. All too often great architecture speaks more of its authors, as a monument to its architects rather than the place or context in which it resides; its strength residing not in its resonance with its place, but in its ability to stand over the "degrading forces of the everyday world." (Till 2009:20)


So what are the alternatives? Returning to Rossi's (1982: 126) quotation:

To context is opposed the idea of Monument. Beyond its historically determined existence, the monument has a reality that can be subjected to analysis. Moreover, we can design a "monument"

The connotations of this are profound. First Rossi asks questions of permanence, to what extent can any urban context embody the sense of its inhabitants, their identity, if they are continuously in flux, yet their surroundings anchored to the ground, are unchanging?

Rem Koolhaas (1995:1248) proposes an alternative approach to urban growth. In his essay "The Generic City" he holds impermanence key to a meaningful urban context. In this text Koolhaas claims that to work from one central plan restricts the ability for a city to meaningfully respond to the needs of its inhabitants. Instead of this cities should become less static, their grain more fabric than concrete, allowing change, alteration and renewal on a continuous basis as the city's people change. He speaks of Paris as a city imprisoned through the governance of Haussmanns' plan, which in bringing order to the city also brought an identity in the boulevards and mansard-roofed buildings that has prevented Paris from evolving with its population. Moreover he claims London is a model of how cities should develop. As a conglomeration of towns its grain is haphazard, resistant to the grand plans such as Sir Christopher Wrens' intentions for the city, flexible as a result and more resonant of the Londoners than the architects who tried to impose a city and a means of life onto them.

"Paris can only become more Parisian- it is already on its way to becoming hyper-Paris, a polished caricature. There are exceptions: London… more open, less static" (Koolhaus and Mau 1995:1248)

It is ironic to then consider the perception of London and Londoners by those attempting to impose Wrens plan for the city, which was never realised due to "...tenacious mercantile habits and jealous property rights" (Mumford 1961: 386)

Returning to Rossi's quotation he suggests that the reality of monument is its own shortcoming. If the notion of monument is that of an icon, a core to the city, around which the city revolves; then an obvious question is how that permanent object responds to a growing, shifting city. Is it perhaps time to consider space as monument? In this shifting of focus away from the physical buildings and towards the spaces between them a change in the way one perceives the city sensually also occurs. Monumental approaches to city design relied on visual homogeneity and rigor from the plan. Immaterial space however cannot be quantified in this sense; "the ear is equally as capable of describing a space as the eye"(Hill 2006:183), this makes us consider the city not for what it is, but how it is experienced. Moreover the further we continue along the path of the visual utopia the more we ignore what truly makes townscapes and urban fabric, the interaction with the body and space, the body and the city, and the interaction between one body and another.

"The city has long been dominated by the eye... we rarely associate our urban experiences with ... the noise of the harbour, or the sound of a language... the harder we work to create a visually varied and interesting urban environment, the more we imagine it as silent and devoid of smells." (Schivelbusch 2005: 44)

Instead of perceiving the beauty of the city as an object Koolhaas (1995) again proposes that a "sensual sedation" should occur, in doing so bringing out the true beauty of a city, which comes through experiencing its "moments" its beauty in both space and time.

"Compared to the classical city, the Generic City is sedated, usually perceived from a sedentary position, Instead of concentration- simultaneous presence- in the Generic City individual moments are spaced far apart to create a trance of almost unnoticeable aesthetic experiences: the color variations in the fluorescent lighting of an office building just before sunset, the subtleties of the slightly different whites of an illuminated sign at night…" (Koolhaas and Mau 1995:1250)

Kostof also alludes to a need to respect the context of the urban realm. He too thought of the city not as a hard object, nor as an object that requires visual "prettification." He believed that the true values of urban contexts are in their "flows" their ability to provide connections between people and places.

"...In the end, urban truth is in the flow'." ( Kostof

In this Kostof goes on to consider the city is a living system whose processes and rhythms should be remembered, they never rest, nor can they be neatly arranged for visual effect. Once again it is through the awareness of a places context that one can begin to design in a meaningful manner, transcending the physical reality of a space and connecting to the true essence of place. Moreover it shows that our urban spaces do not exist in isolation, rather together, as a series of related spaces. An urban space cannot be considered as a monument in isolation as its true strength is in its connectivity.

All too often however the modernist principle of functional zoning has had a wedging effect, creating buffer spaces in the city; commercial zones at night, Industrial areas during the weekend. In addition the separation of home life and work has lead to a lack of ownership of our public realm, we no longer work were we live, and as a result have fallen into a "lapse of citizenship and neighbourhoodliness" producing a city that is "nobody's business." (Mumford 1961: 383) A zoned city is not a walkable city, the need for the car and private transport not only dominates the urban landscape, but removes the chance for interaction with others in the city, or even the city itself. The influence of this thinking can be experienced across the globe; in Northern Ireland the New-City planning of Craigavon carries all the hallmarks of Neo-Corbusian planning. If we consider that the ideal city is that where the Monuments are the inhabitants, the fabric as the context then a certain level of "Messy vitality" and autonomy is required in order to create an atmospheric and engaging urban landscape. A successful urban context allows us to reconnect ourselves with the streets, making them the dwelling place of the collective. (Zardini 2005:255)


In conclusion both quotations contain many points of debate. When both are analysed together questions of the context of the profession of architecture, and how the resulting architecture responds to its context arise. Urban Contexts and the Architectural Profession are dominated by monuments and the Visual Sense. Exploring other senses and broadening the scope of the profession may be a way to enrich our urban context.

The notion of Monument carries the implication of permanence, Grand buildings inspiring pride through their ability to stand over their surroundings, to dominate their context. This is a flawed ideal. Not only does this remove the human scale from a city, but the monuments created serve as a testament to their designers, and speak more loudly of their "genius" than they reflect or embody the city as a whole. It may be that in order to detach ourselves from this notion we begin to consider a city not as the buildings within it, but the spaces between them, and in doing so begin to consider a city not as a visual object, but a sensual experience, with the monuments not as the buildings we see, but the people who work and live within and between them.

In shifting the focus from the buildings of an urban landscape to the spaces between them we may begin to overcome the reliance on the visual sense in urban contexts. Cities have rhythms and processes that inform and shape their physical presence; this should inform urban designs more than the need for visual homogeneity, or a sense of order from a plan. We experience only a small fraction of a city in a visual sense, our means of creating urban places must therefore extend beyond this; the power of the haptic realm could return urban thinking to the city of experience, rather than the city of order.

In terms of the profession it may also be time to depart from Tills (2009 :45) notion of a sealed "Black box" of practice, with architecture in isolation as a profession from other pools of thinking. It is dependent upon others at every stage of its journey from initial sketch to inhabitation In this light notions of lone genius, utopian ideals and the repetition of great men with their great ideas is unnerving. The linear development of urban thinking from Roman principles of the grid and absolute order with Vitruvius, to Burnham's notion of order through art and rigor in City Beautiful planning, or Corbusier's zoning of modernist urban thinking is entirely questionable. Our context is more than visual. Architecture as a profession is indebted to and surrounded by a framework of thinking that until recently has been largely ignored during the utopian pursuit. Psychologists, philosophers, demographers, sociologists, but crucially the general public and local communities should and must be involved in the process if meaningful place-making is to occur in the creation of urban fabric.