Material Futures — Dismantling the Confederate Mythology

Robert E. Lee melt down — An illustration from our 2018 proposal.

In the fall of 2018, we participated in an ideas competition to rethink Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. The brief called upon designers to consider how modifications, or transformations to the existing site, might bring about meaningful change and ​facilitate constructive discussion around the future of Monument Avenue. ​As monuments to the confederacy are toppled throughout the United States, we felt inspired to share our thoughts on the matter with the hope of adding to this polarizing and ongoing conversation.

In opposing the removal of the various confederate monuments around our country, many in opposition, tend to make arguments such that ‘we are erasing our history.’ Our president himself stated recently, and in response to this dialog, that “we must build on our heritage, not tear it down.” Furthermore, many journalistic outlets publish these ‘arguments,’ often, it would seem, in the interest of being ‘fair and balanced;’ purporting to report on both sides of the story. However, in the case of an argument such as this — which is nothing but a fallacy — to repeat it without context or rebuttal amounts to spreading disinformation and adding confusion to an already confused and overwhelming dialogue around the monuments, our country’s history, and its past (and present) built on racial violence.

Let us consider this notion for a moment–are these monuments really so-called history? We are not historians, but if one digs, even at the most superficial level into the history of these monuments, the answer is no. The role of Robert E. Lee in history is pretty clear (and we are opting to use his example but the argument applies to all other such monumentalized figures as well), but anyone unsure of his place in it, might want to consult Adam Serwer’s recent piece in The Atlantic​ on the subject. Note the title of his piece– “The ​myth​ of The Kindly General Lee,” because, a “​mythology” is a much more appropriate word to describe these monuments, than a “history” ever was. Yes, General Lee, did ​exist​, no one is arguing with that. But who was he? What kind of person was he? What was his role in history? And in the larger context of the Civil War? And within the history of slavery in America? The decision to create a large-stoic-grand-noble equestrian monument to a man responsible for horrific violence; perpetuating and championing the fight for slavery, viciously torturing his slaves — to name only a few — is not a decision having to do with any kind of historical accuracy or an attempt at recording history at all. It is in fact a way of bolstering a mythology, and perpetuating an iconography of hate and violence.

Although we are reticent to enlist the nazi comparison, it is clearly and sadly relevant here. Would we, as a society, have any ambivalence about monumental equestrian statues for Adolf Hitler or one of his generals in our public space (or in Germany’s)? Would we have any problem with tearing them down? Would that equate to ‘erasing history?’ And would we even want to put them in a museum in order to go look at them — as many have argued for? The answer is clearly no. In fact, tearing them down acknowledges their history, not the other way around. A​ monument​ is not the same as a historical record. Rather, it is a ​proposal​ that relates to our beliefs, our values, and what we, as a society, want to uplift as a model for ourselves, our citizens, and our country. If figures, such as General Lee, are models for our citizens, then surely we are all lost.

While we are relieved as each icon falls, as the crown of its forehead meets the pavement, pavement — and people — it had been towering wrongly above for so long; we would also posit that the time may be near, the opportunity and the space cleared, for a larger, more pro-active, and less re-active discussion. We need to reckon with our collective history, but not in a way that mythologizes it, rather in a way that confronts the violence and original sins of this country’s past; which include both slavery and the genocide of indigenous peoples. Where are the memorials for ​these horrors? The memorials for all the lives lost and ripped apart by ​that violence? Who or what might we monumentalize as a role model within those​ narratives?

As we are thinking about such ideas-possibilities-dreams for what a more historically accurate landscape of public space, history, memorial, and monuments might be and look like, let us not forget to reconsider the language​ that might be employed in such an endeavor. Were the monument to Robert E. Lee to be replaced with a similar one, to a civil rights leader for example, would that alone, serve as an adequate or suitable response? This is a complicated question to answer, and the germane solution may vary from community to community, but it seems to us that to simply insert another narrative within this same aesthetic tradition would be an act constrained by a language that inherently complicates it. For, the entire language of neoclassical sculpture — which relies upon an association to the greco-roman aura, to convey that aura and authority upon a chosen (non greco-roman) figure, seems at best antiquated, and at worst intertwined with white supremacy in and of itself. Why not re-evaluate: the language appropriate to a monument might instead be one that is more reflective of the story that it is trying to tell.

While they have recently come to a front, the debates over what to do with these monuments have been going on for many years resulting in numerous proposals. Many of these have been ‘replies’ — in the sense that they necessarily respond to what exists there already. This is understandable, since anger is often the first, strongest and certainly most warranted response to them. However, what exists is a framework that was erected by white supremacy. And so, to merely respond to that framework, especially within its own language — whatever the response might be — does not effectively remove the original content, but merely reframes it. Even the act of defacing requires that the object of defacement remain, and exist indefinitely. Instead, to excise something altogether opens the door to imagining an entirely different operational framework — one that facilitates a visual and spatial language that does not seek to exploit our assumptions or build upon our inherent biases.

Form and its meaning are inseparable. One cannot simply cover, paint, disfigure, or even relocate these monuments in their entirety to transcend their hateful message. Their evil resides in their explicit form: a crafted, visual language that seamlessly and effortlessly invokes 400 years of black oppression. If this is indeed the case, moving forward necessitates a strategy that takes this into account.

As we reflect on the societal unrest in our country right now, it’s clear that real, radical change is realized through transformations of individual perspectives. We are constrained by our own selfhoods, and are thus forced to reckon with each other, to change each other’s minds and evolve individually, in order to progress collectively. Similarly, the materials that constitute each monument’s form — the bronze, the stone, the mortar — are not inherently fixed in their meaning. Rather, they are by nature malleable, abstract, and open-ended: plastic mediums that have the potential to take on new life. Bronze can be forged and stone can be cut. What might these materials become? A proposal that enacts the reuse and transformation of these materials rather than their preservation or defacement, suggests a path forward that holds ourselves accountable for what we were, what we are, and what we might become.

Kevin Kunstadt and Shane Neufeld’s long term collaboration has resulted in several architectural proposals, many relating to vision and justice. Their design for a ​Trans–Atlantic Slavery Memorial, which called for the melting down and re-use of bronze confederate statues, was awarded both the ​People’s Choice​ and ​Consideration of Scale​ awards, as a part of the Monument Avenue GD/GD ideas competition, in Richmond VA, which took place over the course of 2018–2019.

Architectural collaborations relating to vision & justice.