Unraveling Urban Life and Space
Empty Pedestals (8/18/2017)
The statues are coming down. Some are surprised how easy it is to physically remove a statue, or just pull it down. It’s true: removing a bronze statue can be as simple as cutting through a handful of bolts, far less effort than it takes to reach consensus about whether the statues should stay or go. Statues of this kind, that commemorate famous men (and sometimes women) in public places outdoors generally sit upon a plinth or platform of some kind. That pedestal is by far the more difficult piece to remove, being a large block of solid stone or other masonry extending well below the soil’s surface.
The pedestal is essential to the statue - it keeps Stonewall or whoever from sinking into the ground or tipping over - but people don’t have strong feelings about plinths. It’s just the stage for the main event. A grand pedestal makes its statue higher, but also elevates it figuratively, saying that whatever stands atop it is worthy of attention, if not veneration. When the statue goes, that stage becomes empty. The way things are going, we may soon have quite a few of them.
What hen happens to the empty pedestals? The obvious choice is removal. Removing a pedestal is not so emotionally fraught, just a surprisingly expensive bit of demolition. Demolish the plinth, excavate its substantial footing, fill in the hole, and cover the spot with grass or pavement. You can make it look like no statue was ever there. That’s erasure, and some will say that is exactly what should happen. That park or avenue can look as though this entire argument we are living through never happened at all.
From an urban design standpoint, statues are more than who or what they honor. They are often the focal point of a space. The kind of traditional statues of soldiers and statesmen in question here typically form part of a symmetrical, classical layout, as the center of a circle or endpoint of an axis, for example. As focal points, they do not simply say “look at this person,” but also “look at this spot,” highlighting a location where lines cross or an important space is entered. If that focal point is totally erased, it will be odd, like a missing tooth. In other places, Confederate statues are one memorial among many, grouped on a courthouse lawn or in a park. In those situations, one memorial more or less won’t matter so much.
What else can you do with an empty pedestal? You can put something else atop it, a new player on the stage. This could be another permanent (sort of) memorial to a less controversial hero. Or you could sidestep permanence and use that spot as a rotating gallery of sorts, like the Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square. Replacement is erasure, too, in a different, more dynamic form.
The empty pedestal itself calls to mind cathedral niches deprived of their saints during the Reformation. Those niches speak eloquently of the history of their churches and abbeys, before the Reformation and after. The empty pedestal and the void above it are themselves history. They are questions rendered in stone: what was here? why is it gone? why was it here in the first place?
Over 150 years have passed since the end of the Civil War, and we are arguing, bitterly, over these statues and what they mean and to whom. One hundred fifty years far surpasses the duration of the war itself, from 1861 to 1865. Our divisions over race, which are inextricable from the Civil War and its memory, are of course far older, essentially beginning with European settlement of North America. As a shaping force, these centuries-long divisions may be more influential than any war, even one as bitter as our civil war. If our public space should highlight important elements of our history, perhaps these divisions deserve a mention. But how do you memorialize a rift?
The empty pedestal makes a statement of its own. Here something was venerated, for some reason, and then it was not, for some reason. Perhaps these questions and the rifts they highlight deserve a spot among our war heroes and founders. A few of our soon-to-be empty pedestals could remain vacant, filled with questions about who we’ve been, and who we are.
(Also posted on Medium here.)
Assorted drafts, previews, and outtakes from the book I'm currently writing about the impact of vegetation and neglect on urban life. I also take other thoughts for a test drive here, including nascent design and research ideas.