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War and Memory

WAR and Its Memory

It’s no surprise that some aspects of Agincourt’s history are problematic for me, as they might be for few others. War is at the top of that list.

At least three times I’ve tried to design The Square, the testosterone-infused block that serves as forecourt to the courthouse; yang to the yin across Broad Street at The Commons. It may be my coming-of-age in the 1960s — Vietnam and all that — that ill-equips me to identify with War; or it may have originated much earlier when Roy advocated pacifism. “Roll with the pinches,” he advised, and I took him quite literally. Whatever the source, I have made three real attempts to design the 300-by-300 foot aggregation of monuments to the nation’s armed conflicts and failed miserably.

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After Agincourt’s founding in 1853, the Civil War would have been the community’s first opportunity to memorialize war generally and its own sacrifices, like young John Beddowes. [Only when I put a face on it (albeit and imaginary one) can I even begin to conceptualize War.] The pattern of Civil War memorials shown on this map might get me off the hook: notice how few there are in Iowa, though this is a statistic I can’t quite accept.

For the next Agincourt exhibit, at Grinnell, Iowa in the fall of 2017, the previous material must be edited; there just isn’t enough room. Despite that, there are some elements of the story, like the troublesome Square that has given me fits for ten years, that I will have time to address. If not now, when? If not me, who?

Desperate for advice, I found a book published in 2013 that might help: The Language of War Monuments by David Machin and Gill Abousnnouga that

analyses war monuments across Britain by developing a multimodal social-semiotic approach to understanding how they communicate as three-dimensional objects. It examines how monument designers have made use of specific semiotic choices in Iconography, objects, shape, form, angularity, height, materials, and surface realization.

Well, golly, that ought to help. This is just one of many reasons why I don’t make an acceptable academic.

I calculated elsewhere that we’ve been at war during more than one third of Agincourt’s history.  And I assume the accumulation of all those monuments and memorials is likely to have produced something cluttered, if not actually grotesque. We become attached to those statements of public grief, however. Short of some natural disaster — tornado, sinkhole, etc. — it would be a stretch to imagine the opportunity to replace that clutter with a timeless composite memorial. Something Egyptian, perhaps, like the Chapelle Rouge at Karnak, commissioned by Hatshepsut to house the solar barque used by Amun-Re on his daily journey across the heavens.

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It’s no surprise that I.M. Pei chose Egyptian imagery for his remodeling of the Louvre: few cultures have produce works as timeless as the ancient Egyptians, and Hatshepsut’s architect Senmut may have been among the most skilled. [It should also come as no surprise that there are rumors about their architect-client relationship.]

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The other architect who comes to mind is Sir Edwin Lutyens, always in my “Top Ten” and high as well on the Bucket List. In 2013 Richard Kenyon and I had a chance to see several of the forty-plus memorials to WWI that were designed by Lutyens. Given the number of those commissions and their near simultaneity, it would have been oh so easy to fall into formulaic work. Such was not the case, however, as each seems tailored to its scale (the number of burials) and site (from urban street or open field to bosky dell).

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With guides such as these, I may have a decent chance for success.


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