That is the common question behind two recent pieces I wrote for The Washington Post. Do we need a national World War One memorial, and do we need a new stadium for the offensively named NFL team, the Washington Redskins? In an age of environmental crisis and grave economic inequality, it is the most basic and fundamental question architects should consider. There will always be a valid argument for building things that are simply beautiful and inspiring, and have no other purpose than to channel emotions and bring delight. But today, the bar is much higher for building things that don’t directly serve a need, that don’t improve lives and contribute to the sustainability of the man-made environment.
As I argue here, Washington is already full of World War One memorials, as is the rest of the country. Bringing the “forgotten war” into what one supporter of the new memorial calls the “modern practice of war memorialization” simply isn’t necessary. Let’s not forget the merits of the way we “remembered” things a century ago, and above all, let’s be skeptical about the very idea of national memory:
We use such words as memory and memorial and remembrance too casually. Of course, no one “remembers” the First World War anymore, at least not in the visceral, personal sense of those who lived through it. And there is no such thing as a collective memory of anything. Rather, there is rhetoric, history and mythology, which memorials attempt to fix in some kind of permanent form, beyond emendation or contradiction. At a local level, this effort to forge a historical sense of events is to some degree constrained by actual memory, by the memory of survivors, and by children and grandchildren. At the national level, it devolves into a meaningless language of heroism, valor and sacrifice, often in service to a larger and menacing nationalism.
The commission designated to organize and build the new memorial estimates the cost to be between $21 and $25 million dollars. That is negligible compared to the cost of a new football stadium. Price-tag estimates for recent NFL stadiums run in the $1.3 to $1.6 billion range. So rebuilding stadiums every 20 years is an obscene waste of resources–especially when franchise owners squeeze much of that money from municipalities. So what does one make of a seemingly progressive architecture firm that decides to take on an NFL team as a client? I am deeply skeptical.
Architects aren’t saints. They serve power, and always have. And BIG has served some shady patrons in the past. Different firms negotiate the ethical challenges of serving the corrupt and cruel differently. Some see themselves as merely providers of a technical service and don’t claim any particular ethical high ground. Too many overestimate their own powers, and they assuage any concerns about the client with the moral fable that someone has to build the building, so better that it be built right.
People become impassioned about memorials, which offer a rare but powerful opportunity for everyone to think about the connection between design and cultural politics. But let me gauge my dislike of these two different cases of unnecessary building. I think it’s a mistake to create a new national memorial to World War One; but I think it’s an outrage that we tolerate the egregious upward wealth redistribution, moral obliviousness and environmental destruction baked into every billion-dollar NFL stadium project.
Images: The Washington D.C. memorial to World War One, By 350z33 at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0