Are modern memorials too complex?

Published 6:36 pm Saturday, December 1, 2018

By Yolande Robbins

It is Maya Lin’s time.  She created and defined it.  But the appeal of “The Wall” in Washington, DC is due to the fact that it is in the earth, a wall with names. You can touch it. It’s no illusion. It is in the earth and real. And no one who goes there comes away unmoved.

Strangely though, this concept so maligned as the proposed monument for the dead of Vietnam, became the anti-icon for the later work it spurred. Our temperament and time are still minimalist because of her. But the very idea that a heroic architecture could be accomplished by something other than a statue has created the conviction that it’s not space that should be shaped, but our perceptions of it.

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Modern architects try to shape perception instead of space. By means ethereal and complicated and enormously expensive, they try to create symbols inclusive of diversity and of huge numbers, as well as the sublime but painful specificity of each life lost.

Their efforts — and the influence of Lin — give us designs that try to merge transcendence into time.

But what the effort’s done is cause a conversation about invisible technologies that can create an architecture of unseen but easily experienced effects.

Many see them as too complicated though; too burdened by defined goals and requirements to be truly visionary. But all of them acknowledge the influence of Maya Lin.

One architect has said, “Our society today is so diverse yet struggling for inclusion that the burden of …reality now falls on lists of names.”

What grand architecture, he wondered, can be made from lists of names when all we’re used to are men on horses. And with names.

Another architect, Annabelle Selldorf, said, “Everything is about language and conceptual thinking these days. (But) “Sculpture and architecture are physical,” she said. They deal with space.

So the underlying concern of almost all those architects is the technology at the base of all of those designs.

“What happens to the monument when the technology goes wrong?”

What happens, asked Hugh Hardy, “when light bulbs don’t work and the water gets scuzzy?” (Then) “What have you got?”

One of the designs for the World Trade Center site had called for “fuel that dripped down cords cut to lengths that vary according to the victims’ ages…” Keeping them all lighted would require both vigilance and maintenance on a scale beyond belief.

A great image can be gotten by a mobile infrastructure, but at what cost literally, and at what cost to simplicity? Have statues become that vapid?

Or places in “the Park”?

Trying to create transcendence in such a place as 9/11, or at a night club, or a school causes many to wonder how the effort would even hold up as a ruin.

Margaret Helfand, once the president of the American Institute of Architects in New York, said  “I yearn for something simple with no moving parts.”

For me, I just don’t know; I can’t decide.

Yolande Robbins is a community correspondent for The Post. You may email her at