If you’re ever in doubt as to the emotional power of architecture, look no further than the realm of monuments and memorials. From the ancient Roman Arch of Titus, to the Cenotaph in London, and Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, war memorials have been a common feature of our landscapes for as long we can remember. Yet the war memorial architecture of the past is vastly different to that of today. In both style and meaning, there’s been a shift from classic grandeur to something altogether more abstract. But why? What has caused this transition? And what does it mean for the war memorial architecture of the future? Keep reading to find out more.
How Has War Memorial Architecture Changed Over The Years?
While war memorial architecture has roots in the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome, the purpose and symbolism of such monuments are far removed from the raison d’etre of their modern counterparts. War and violence in general was more heavily glorified — exalted even — than it is today. As such, both the character and purpose of their war memorials reflect this.
For our ancient ancestors, war memorials were celebratory in nature. They existed to commemorate victory, hence the grand nature of triumphal arches and columns. Monuments and memorials weren’t about the sacrifice of the common soldier, but rather the glory and greatness of the winning emperor or general.
For the greater part of history, this concept of victory in war memorial architecture prevailed. Just look at the neo-classical Arc de Triomphe in Paris, or the Wellington and Marble Arches in London. All were commissioned with the sole purpose of commemorating success in the Napoleonic Wars. Yet as the world inched further towards the 19th and 20th centuries, this was all about to change.
Following the heavy bloodshed of the Civil War in the US and WWI, we see a gradual shift towards monuments which attempt to memorialize every individual soldier. There’s an eagerness to recognize the sacrifices of war. As a result, war memorial architecture takes on a much somber tone.
Historian K.S. Inglis attributes this to the fact that most of these armies were made up of civilian volunteers rather than conscripts. “Conscripts were not to be praised … merely for doing their duty.” Volunteers, on the other hand, deserved the highest form of tribute for their unyielding patriotism.
The Sacrificial Cross
To match this new rhetoric of sacrifice, designers relied heavily on the sacrificial cross motif. Triumphal arches remained popular until well after WWI, though the elaborate scenes of wartime heroism were for the most part swapped out for the names of the dead and missing.
On the other hand, the traditional victory column declined in popularity in the post WWI memorial landscape. Instead, designers of war memorials tended to favor structures like the obelisk or cenotaph.
This was especially the case in Britain where, during WWI, the government declined to repatriate the bodies of the dead. In the absence of a grave, the cenotaph, or the empty tomb, served as a substitute. For the first time, we see war memorial architecture functioning as physical and social sites of mourning.
Moving forward to present day, contemporary war memorial architecture couldn’t be more different to the structures of the past. One of the most striking aspects of modern memorials is how all-encompassing they are. The war memorials of today are often whole landscapes rather than singular objects or monuments, meant to encourage personal introspective reflection.
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, for example, is made up of a complete public space dedicated to remembrance. Meanwhile, Maya Lin’s design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial makes use of black granite walls buried 10 feet in the ground to create a “quiet place meant for … private reckoning”.
Style-wise, post WWII has seen a move towards a stripped-back minimalist aesthetic. Overt imagery has been replaced by abstract symbolism which is often left open to interpretation. In doing so, defining the meaning and purpose of war memorial architecture becomes the responsibility of the individual.
Combining aesthetic beauty with meaning and symbolism, the war memorials of today exemplify how architecture is so much more than a simple amalgamation of bricks and mortar. As metaphors for loss, grief, and also hope for the future, war memorials stand as physical and social spaces in which communities can process the complexities of tragic events.
Free from the tethers of a specific message, it seems that today’s brand of war memorial architecture is more universal in nature. To this end, I think a continued shift of focus from the specific to something more abstract will ultimately serve to make the memorials of the future more personal than ever before.
What have been your personal experiences with war memorial architecture?
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