Giovanni Battista Piranesi, 1747-1750. Fantastic Monuments. Pen and brown ink and brown wash over traces of graphite, on laid paper, 19.8 x 27.7 cm, CCA Collection, DR1967:0003

Albrecht Dürer, 1525. “Monument to the Peasant Rebellion,” from Underweysung der Messung, mit dem Zirckel und Richtscheyt

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A long, long time ago on Twitter, in the early summer of 2009, architect Sam Jacob, journalist Will Wiles, historian and blogger Enrique Ramirez, and myself got involved in one of those momentary overlappings of ideas, retweets, and purpose-laden @ messages that constitute interaction on Twitter’s public instant-messaging service.

We were discussing monuments.

Specifically, for the fifteen minutes or so that this interaction lasted, we asked: how could you design something to memorialize the past with enough flexibility that it could represent more than one event, person, or site? If, for instance, political tides changed, or the currents of public sentiment drifted elsewhere, could a monument be subtly retooled so as to refer to and represent something else—perhaps even the original monument’s diametric opposite?

On the other hand, was this referential switchability, perhaps, the secret purpose of the classical, abstract monument in the first place, with its unmarked marble plinth, non-representational obelisk, or other sculptural act of pure geometry? Through only slight alteration—perhaps even literally just moving it to another site or carving new words into its base—these objects could celebrate a new historical referent altogether. The monument or public memorial would here be a kind of glorified sports trophy writ large, installed in public on its stone podium, politely alterable for any given situation.

This would be “generic memorialism,” Sam Jacob wrote—a kind of flexible monumentality, we might say.

[Image: Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown].

Once you have launched yourself down this path, however, you approach the possibility of devising a Total Monument—what Sam called, at the time, “a memorial to everything. Everything that has happened and everything that might.” A monument that absorbs and invalidates literally every other mnemonic structure in the world, acting as a kind of black hole of memory or referential event-horizon: a total archive, an infinite memorial, an endless well.

Enrique Ramirez came back with an image by Albrecht Dürer, which Enrique described at the time as a “plug-in monument,” its ornamental absurdity seemingly the result of a bad Photoshop job—an historical accidental in the collaging factory—not an act of conscious design at all. Urns, farm implements, harvested crops, and an armed soldier sit astride Dürer’s totem pole as if interchangeable elements in an iconography going haywire.

Or was that the point? Subtract a detail here, add another there as necessary, and you, too, can have a monument to whatever historical event might need to be remembered.

These thoughts eventually came to the idea of the pre-emptive monument—that is, something built in advance of the event it is meant to memorialize. You simply establish the basic shape of a public memorial, and you then add or subtract a series of prefab elements, as needed, taking or leaving pieces from a modular iconography depending on what your act of remembrance might specifically need. Plug-in memorialism. A box of elements, stored away in a warehouse somewhere, ready for action, manufactured in advance before anything has actually happened.

A Preemptive Monument to the Coming London Flood. A Plug-In Memorial for the Death of Those Still Living.

As we continued discussing this, Sam posited another idea: the “Me-morial: Self-important individualism carved in stone.” Or, he asked, how about the “Re-morial: A monument to reconstruction. (e.g. a monument to a destroyed monument.)” Here, though, I’m actually reminded of the so-called “Lost Monuments” collection at the CCA: miniature reproductions of now-destroyed Soviet monuments, straddling an interesting line between a revolutionary act of public memory and culturally empty, souvenir kitsch. But how about the De-morial: a physical act of marking things that should have been disremembered, de-memorized, forgotten?

All of this returns us to the opening image of this post, by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (the original available here at the CCA). Called “Fantastic Monuments,” and dating from 1747-1750, the image shows an ornamental dreamscape of monuments-to-be. It is a quasi-urban setting of pure reference: courtyards, colonnades, and piazzas that exist only insofar as they can call attention—or, as we might say now, link—to something elsewhere.

Piranesi’s image is a kind of inhabitable hard drive, a place of longterm public memory storage on a variety of timescales, marking memory in both a solid and non-solid state. But these spiraling and incomplete forms, stacked one in front of the other in a visual maze of inky details, could refer to anything: a battle, a fallen pope, a triumphant king. Add another, subtract a few, combine the rest, stick on some ornamental details, rewrite their inscriptions: they are free agents, monuments in memoriam for anything that has happened, in anticipation of anything that has yet to occur.

Geoff Manaugh is a 2010 Visiting Scholar and writes as part of the To CCA, From… series. Browse all of Geoff’s posts.