Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Why would you build that? A cynical take on monuments.

Happy Memorial Day. 

Every human society that I know of builds monuments. It's one of the first signs that a society has made the big shift from chiefdom to the State. Monumental architecture precedes the city. The Sumerians built it, the Egyptians built it, the Chinese built it, and the Harappans built it.

Column from the Persian Royal palace at Persepolis
I find this troubling. We're not talking about casual decoration or utilitarian buildings here. Monumental architecture is BIG, it represents thousands of man hours of labor by societies whose food supply was a lot more precarious than ours. In modern terms, we're talking about projects that cost a considerable fraction of Gross Domestic Product.

There are better uses for the resources, conceivably. Instead of painstakingly quarrying enormous slabs of basalt, perhaps the gang could be draining a swamp, or making fish traps, or digging irrigation ditches.

Olmec stone head. I think this one is about 8 feet tall.
And after being quarried, all this stone has to be transported. In the New World, it had to be transported without useful freight animals. It had to be shaped, and if you screw it up, if you crack the monument or knock a piece off, you're back at the beginning of the project. The final monument has to be levered and winched and braced into place, onto a surface carefully prepared to bear the enormous weight. And for what?

Mohenjo Daro. In the foreground is a pool. The stones are so perfectly fitted that when filled with water, it doesn't leak a drop. There is no sealant.
A typical answer to this question is to say, "it's religious". This is a cop-out. To say that monumental architecture is built for religious reasons is to say, "it doesn't have to make sense to us." Of COURSE monumental architecture has religious significance; that doesn't tell us why it was built, with such massive effort and enormous expense, by people who had very real problems of food security.

Angkor Wat
Naturally, there's some ambiguity of purpose and intent in monumental architecture constructed by pre-literate societies. But the development of writing makes the motivation behind the construction of monumental architecture perfectly clear.

The Acropolis
Monumental Architecture is built at the bidding of elite members of the society doing the construction. They cause these projects to be built in order to legitimize their privileged position within the society. Stonehenge functions as a calendar. That's because being able to pronounce the exact date of each equinox and solstice gave the religious elites of the builders legitimacy. Stela C from Tres Zapotes depicts the priest/king in full regalia, and describes his triumphs and the legitimizing rituals he performed. The Forbidden City was laid out to demonstrate the divinity of the emperor.

Temple of Luxor
And, I remind you, these projects aren't cheap. They take decades to build, thousands of workers are needed, prestige goods like greenstone and limestone and marble and gold are consumed in huge quantities in order to fulfill the vision of the architects and prove the legitimacy of the society's rulers. It's insane. The Pharaoh, or the Emperor, or the High Priest of Baal harnesses the full productive potential of an entire society in order to cement their control. The monument may fulfill its function by providing a spot to host sporting events, or slaughter prodigious numbers of animals, or may proclaim the number of dead enemies defeated by the ruler. But the motivation is always the same: to demonstrate and memorialize the power of the elite who ordered the construction.

Taj Mahal
Of course, it's easy to mock the unenlightened primitives who get suckered into working like slaves for a project that provides evidence that their inferiority is good and just. But monumental architecture isn't unique to primitive societies.

Mt. Rushmore.
The Washington Monument was constructed not merely to memorialize George Washington, but to associate its builders with the beloved President. That's part of why it took so long. Lenin's Tomb was intended to illustrate the genius of his vision and by association, the eminence of the state he founded. and just recently....

The George W. Bush Presidential Center
the opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Library has provoked lots of accurate and entirely deserved snark about how it's not really a library, it's an attempt to justify his disastrous presidency. If this were ancient Egypt, some future president would remove Dubya's name from all public architecture and expunge him from history.

It's a little different now than in the past, of course. Modern technological societies are infinitely more wealthy than our agriculturally centered, muscle powered predecessors. Even the most elaborate elite vanity project costs only a tiny fraction of society's available resources. North Korea's acquiescence to the insanity of the Kim Dynasty may be an exception to this observation. And modern societies have a more diverse elite than ancient societies did, too.

The Chrysler Building
We would say today that Chrysler earned the money that built this building. But the artisans who carved the columns of the Temple of 1000 Warriors felt that their orders came from people who had "earned" the artisan's compliance. And the motivations behind the construction of Notre Dame Cathedral are identical to the motivations behind buying naming rights to the Console Energy Center.

Monumental architecture is self-promotion. There are people with the power and resources to have something gigantic built. They do so in order to enhance their prestige and dominance. And they do it with the labor of the very masses they're trying to impress.