What makes a good monument

Nashville's Parthenon. Photo by Ryan Kaldari, via Wikipedia.

So in 1897, the city of Nashville got a full-scale replica of the Parthenon, because apparently this silly business of every American city calling itself the Athens of Wherever really went to their heads. I’m torn between thinking this is one of those ridiculous things Americans do to affirm a piece of European cultural heritage, like shipping castles across the Atlantic, and thinking it’s actually a really cool idea.

I got to thinking about this as I read a BBC story about the Bamiyan Buddhas, which the Taliban destroyed in 2001 just in case anybody thought they weren’t fanatical enough. Now that the international community has access to the site, there’s a debate about whether to attempt to restore at least one of the figures. And it’s one of those issues that seems to get more complicated the more I think about it.

We have two opposing instincts when it comes to our monuments. On the one hand, there’s a desire to see it the way it was when it was new, the version its original designers wanted us to see. On the other, there’s a more literal preservationist instinct that focuses on keeping as much of the actual original structure as possible, even if it’s worn down and collapsed over the centuries, as if the stones themselves are the heart of it.

There’s definitely a value to preserving old things. From the design, scale and placement of a structure, you can learn a lot about what the architects intended. And seeing the signs of their age can be both a useful reminder of humans’ cultural longevity: How our works can last much longer than we can ever hope to, and how nature will still get its way in the end.

But both of these ideas only go so far: The Bamiyan Buddhas, it turns out, were originally painted in bright colors that had faded away long before the Taliban demolished them. Even assuming they do get restored, it’s unlikely they’ll get a new paint job.  The murals on the original Parthenon were painted as well, but the duplicate in Nashville uses the uniform stone look we all recognize from the pictures.

The Parthenon is kind of a great example of these two impulses clashing, as for years preservationists have been trying to meticulously restore it using as many of the same materials and construction methods as possible, along with the surviving original blocks. It’s an impressive effort on a lot of levels, but I was disappointed that it won’t produce something that looks much like the original Parthenon did. It seems like it wouldn’t be that much harder just to use that expertise and build a new Parthenon on the site while honoring the original design and construction. After all, the Parthenon was designed to very precise specifications in order to look a certain way, and we might feel closer to its designers if we actually made it look that way again.

When it comes to the Buddhas, though, it gets more complicated. First, the original construction techniques involved carving them straight out of the rock, which obviously you can only do once. Second, the fact that they were deliberately destroyed is something we should probably remember, which is what makes this idea so interesting:

One that has gained quite a lot of attention is a proposal from Italian architect Andrea Bruno to construct a small underground sanctuary at the foot of the Great Buddha which would allow visitors to look up at and appreciate the immensity of the empty niche.

Bruno believes the niches should be preserved as a monument to the crime of their destruction. “It is a kind of victory for the monument and a defeat for those who tried to obliterate its memory with dynamite,” he says.

The Taliban weren’t the first to try to bring down the Bamiyan Buddhas over the centuries; they just did a more thorough job of it. Those attacks are an important part of their history, and making some spiffy new Buddhas wouldn’t really honor that past.

As it happens, there probably aren’t enough pieces left to restore both Buddhas anyway, although the smaller one might be doable. Restoring the broken remains of the smaller Buddha while preserving the giant hole where the larger one used to be could provide a more elegant solution than it does at the Acropolis, where the restoration is using a version of this approach already.

Leave a Reply