Welcome to the first installment of our inaugural BDT blog series. The concept behind the series is to more deeply explore ideas that connect the industry and practice of architecture and design with real world current events and philosophies.

Recent news coverage depicting civil unrest stemming from the removal of a statue depicting Confederate General Robert E Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, has reverberated across America. Large cities and small towns both north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line moved swiftly to remove, conceal or transfer statues with ties to pro-slavery individuals and causes.

These swift actions by officials to avoid becoming the next Charlottesville, where white supremacists and counter-protesters clashed in violent demonstrations last August, has been praised by some and derided by others. Proponents argue that monuments celebrate a losing side that embraced anti-American values running counter to the composition of today’s multicultural society. Meanwhile, those opposed to the removals argue that the monuments are a part of their heritage, and we are in effect erasing history. No matter your position, current events like these will become a part of our generation’s history.

What is the purpose of a monument? How does that meaning change over time? What qualifies as a monument anyway?

As not only an architect and designer of places that people use and see, but a father, husband, son, brother, and citizen of the United States, this debate has led me to question, “What is the purpose of a monument? How does that meaning change over time? What qualifies as a monument anyway?” This line of questioning reminded me of JB Jackson’s essay titled, “The Necessity For Ruins.”

As I reread the 1980 piece by the noted cultural geographer, who died in 1996, I came to realize how relevant his points are today within the context of choosing to celebrate or relegate what we consider monumental people and occasions. In the essay, Jackson chronicled the changing nature of the monument in America from the starting point of the symbolic statue on the town square to ephemeral historical period re-enactment.


Over the last half century, there has been serious discourse and changes in mainstream thinking as it pertains to honoring historical figures. Statues to heroes have become less popular owing to scandals—public and private made public—, and in the case of the confederate monuments, reappraisals of history and events have determined the tributes weren’t meriting memorialization in perpetuity.

This cultural shift coincided with traditional leaders losing authority with the public in the second half of the 20th Century. Those lofty positions once held by religious personalities and politicians continue to erode as decisions once prescribed to private lives gained prominence in our contemporary society. One would not be at loss to think that private decisions matter more today than public ones.

With less specific individuals to enthusiastically commemorate, the contributions of the common man came to be celebrated, from the fisherman of Gloucester to the Coal Miner in Springfield, IL and Indianapolis. The unnamed Civil War soldier became ubiquitous in town squares not long after the close of agressions. The Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Athens, Ohio was dedicated in 1893. The Camp Chase Cemetery in Columbus (pictured below) interns the remains of over 2,000 prisoners of war–two memorials to the dead men stand on the grounds today.


Monuments to the fallen were going up so fast and wide that statues were mass produced to the meet the demand. The Monumental Bronze Co. of Bridgeport, CT cast zinc statues at such a pace they calculated that the public didn’t know the difference between the uniforms of the two sides by swapping a U.S. stamp for a C.S. on the buckle of identical sentinel soldiers. Some citizens did notice. For towns that could not afford original works, the prefabricated parts that comprised the statues not only sped production, but also imprinted our concept of the soldiers’ outward appearance more than the uniforms they actually wore.


Capitalist tendencies toward mass production aside, the vernacular past was what the works dedicated to the common man were aimed at recognizing. Honoring the non-descript past, “simply a sense of the way it used to be, history as the chronicle of everyday existence,” led to a shift in how monuments were planned and designed. Monuments grew to encompass whole battlegrounds, districts and landscapes. They were memorializing a golden age that can only be fully realized again through a cycle of neglect and renewal.

Embracing a golden age while purging historical guilt from the discussion, casts a strong parallel to the American political landscape today.

Over the course of three articles, we’ll take a more in-depth study of our monumental past, present and future.