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MATTER OF COURSE: Cultural Resistance: Redevelopment in the Aftermath of War and Natural Disasters

Roger Williams University

“Away with the monuments,” Friedrich Nietzsche opined in a famous attack on stultified 19th-century German history, and after auditing this course, I pretty much agree. Architecture 530.01 was a “blended, low-residency” class with a focus on architecture, reconstruction, and memory. In my case “low residency” meant that I could show up for only one of three class meetings. My loss. The trip from Boston takes you across the spectacularly beautiful Mount Hope Bridge that links Bristol to Aquidneck Island. Outside Paul Rudolph’s spectacular University of Massachusetts/Dartmouth site, good luck finding a campus this, well, pelagic.

As promised, much of the classwork occurred online. The eight students discussed the readings in digital forums and posted their PowerPoint presentations on the shared website. It seemed to me that students reacted to readings — but rarely debated — in the online forums. Perhaps the format doesn’t lend itself to vigorous interchange, although I’ve heard it said that today’s students are generally reluctant to engage in verbal fisticuffs.

About one-third of the readings and two of the lectures addressed memorials as points of intersection between architecture and history. Professor Hasan-Uddin Khan took a particular interest in the 16th-century Stari Most bridge in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, that was destroyed by Croat shelling in 1993 and rebuilt 11 years later. “The bridge was both a structure and a political symbol, as it linked two sides of a city that shared Muslim and Christian neighborhoods,” Khan explained. He twice participated in reconstruction programs there, representing the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

Between Khan’s lectures and several of the assigned readings, it was hard not to conclude: Good grief, there seems to be a memorial for everything! In his 1999 essay, “Crowding the Mall,” James S. Russell decried the “emotionally toothless” monumental additions to downtown Washington, DC. “As the number of memorials has proliferated, their emotional and artistic power has... waned,” he wrote. “It is all too easy to conclude that commemorative architecture lacks emotional heft these days.”

This course introduced me to the insipid, committee-designed Memorial to Japanese-American Patriotism on Capitol Hill and to Louis Kahn’s homage to Franklin D. Roosevelt, Four Freedoms Park on the tip of New York City’s Roosevelt Island. One of Kahn’s final designs, it strikes me as remote, inaccessible, and irrelevant, especially in light of two preexisting, uninspiring fdr memorials in Washington.

I wasn’t taken with the National Park Service’s Flight 91 Memorial in Pennsylvania, nor with NASA’s Astronaut Memorial at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, both the subject of student presentations. And I was apparently the last person on Earth to know that Norway erected a costly, beautiful, and arguably pointless memorial to victims of 17th-century witch trials in remote Finnmark just five years ago.

I fell in love with a project outside Canberra, Australia, known as the SIEV X monument. SIEV X is an acronym for Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel X, the name given to a boatful of illegal refugees that sank in the vicinity of Australia’s Christmas Island, killing 353 men, women, and children, most of them refugees from Iraq. The tragedy resonated loudly in Australia because it occurred during the 2001 election campaign, when Prime Minister John Howard promised to interdict “boat people” immigration to the continent.

An Australian Senate investigation concluded that “it [is] extraordinary that a major human disaster could occur in the vicinity of a theatre of intensive Australian operations and remain undetected until three days after the event, without any concern being raised within intelligence and decision-making circles.”

After extensive discussions that included an attempt to ban the monument outright, a 14-year-old Brisbane schoolboy, Mitchell Donaldson, proposed the unusual design, a landscape of 353 white poles, each one separately decorated by schools, churches, and community groups across Australia. The poles adorn a grassy hillside and also outline the tiny 60-foot-long hull of the unnamed, doomed refugee ship. 

Roger Williams student Lauren Sieving contacted Steve Biddulph, a psychology professor from Tasmania who was one of the prime movers for the 2007 memorial. “I realized the memorial is even more compelling than I presented it to be,” she wrote me in an e-mail. “For example, the placement of the poles points directly at the Australian Parliament building! How I would love to build a memorial in the US that points a finger at Congress.”

Biddulph told Sieving that the SIEV X installation “sends a message that not all Australians are frightened by refugees or regard them as less than fully human. That we cared enough to remember.”

Nietzsche was right: Away with the monuments! But let’s keep this beautiful one outside Canberra.

Aerial photo of SIEV X Memorial, commemorating the sinking of a refugee vessel that took 353 lives in 2001. In Weston Park, Yarralumla, Canberra, Australia, September 2007.
Image: Courtesy of SIEV X National Memorial Project