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Destroying America’s Monumental Beauty

Any great civilization must not only preserve wonders, but create wonders, too.

As my Uber driver sped us along the George Washington Memorial parkway, by 2 A.M. devoid of life except for his tidy Honda minivan, I looked across the Potomac. The water was practically glassy—unusual for a river usually churned by a flurry of boats, paddleboarders, and wind—and its liquid surface reflected the lights of Washington.

Rising out of the dark mass of foliage were glowing, magnificent marble structures. Illuminated for all hours of the night with great lamps maintained by the federal government, the Lincoln Memorial, U.S. Capitol, and Washington Monument—an American Parthenon, Acropolis, and Pharaoh’s obelisk—stand carefully affixed along the axis of the National Mall. Height restrictions are intentionally enforced so that no lesser edifice may obstruct their prominence. As bad as D.C.’s people can be, I thought, its architecture is truly some of the most beautiful on earth.

Over the last year, the denizens of every American city have experienced scenes exactly opposite the splendid tranquility I felt in those early hours of the morning. Monuments that have stood for generations have been graffitied, coated in paint, and ripped to the ground by angry mobs intent on righting the various wrongs of the installations’ subjects. City governments have even contracted industrial-powered demolition crews to remove some of their most prominent memorials—Richmond has left Monument Avenue desolate with a vengeance far greater than Sherman’s troops ever could. The Theodore Roosevelt statue is being removed from his native city of New York’s Museum of Natural History. Columbus, Lee, Lewis and Clark, George Washington, Sacagawea—no one is safe from dislocation or the wrecking ball. 

In criminological studies, Broken Windows Theory observes that visible signs of crime and decay (like loitering, drug dealing, or dilapidated buildings with broken windows) beget more crime. Police departments consequently police small crimes to stop them from escalating into widespread violence, and organize for urban cleanliness and upkeep to stop communities from descending into a culture of lawlessness. I see no reason why Broken Windows Theory should not apply to our political civilization. Where there are ugly buildings, empty pedestals, and monuments subject to graffiti and abuse, our traditions vanish, politics disintegrate, and ultimately our civilizational direction evaporates. When we have no care for our physical edifice, we have no care for our country’s direction.

This is not an argument for or against the subjects of these monuments. This is an argument for monuments as an integral facet of American urban texture without which we will render our cities more uninhabitable, and our history, traditions, and culture less respected and healthily transmitted to new generations. It is true that our capital’s alabaster colonnades and imposing memorials do not necessarily instill heartfelt patriotism and swell the chorus of civic virtue by mere nature of their existence. But can we really say that America would be better without them? Would we be a prouder, more self-confident society if instead of a beautiful city on a hill for our national center, we had an endless parking lot dotted with soulless identical concrete blocks? Or perhaps an untouched field with three corrugated warehouses for our tripartite government—that would make the fiscal hawks happy. Less maintenance.

Many who hate our monuments hate them because they are old-fashioned. The laciness and earnest Romanophilia overflowing from many of the monuments constructed between 1880 and 1920 are particularly repugnant to those who see the traditions of our great-grandparents’ generation as worthless. Many point to facets of our natural beauty, like the great National Parks, as a more inoffensive thing to revere as national symbols.

It is true that America is uniquely endowed with some of the world’s most stunning natural landscapes. The ruddy walls of the Grand Canyon, azure horizons of the Blue Ridge Mountains, pounding enormity of Niagara Falls, crystal waters of the Florida Keys—these among countless other sites make our country almost unparalleled in the world for the sheer multitude of natural wonders. No one can deny that.

Yet, as magnificent as our pristine landscapes may be, the truth is that any country could own and inhabit them. The American Indian civilizations were not the greatest in the world because they happened to live on the grounds of Mount Zion, Glacier National Park, or Yellowstone. 

No, an important measure of any great civilization must include its ability to create wonders: wonders of architecture and man-made monuments. Monuments are, contrary to cynical belief, not simply well-façaded pits into which our government pours obscene amounts of taxpayer funds. The Lincoln Memorial is not simply a pretty backdrop for an Instagram photo, or the frescoes and statues of the Capitol attractive ornamentation for political ads.

Monumental architecture is not only to display civilizational greatness, nor even to enshrine ideas and beliefs. It is a gift of enduring beauty to ourselves and future generations. It is a tether to the past, immortalizations of past figures, accomplishments, ideas, so that we are not condemned to living in a perpetual dimness of historical ignorance. It is a physical aid to the continuation of culture. They need not necessarily stand as moral absolutes, but fundamentally, they stand to embody beauty. As Roger Scruton famously wrote, “beauty is an ultimate value—something that we pursue for its own sake, and for the pursuit of which no further reason need be given.” To attack beauty is worse than barbaric.

We are a generation milling about an architectural wasteland where comparatively was an eden. Greatness endures—the foundational monuments like those I saw across the river still stand quite untouched (for now)—but even Washington’s iconic structures are flanked by brutalist and internationalist low-rises built in an age where beauty is hated. If we hope to be remembered by future generations as a moral people, then we must protect and expand America’s monumental beauty. Failing to do so will bring forth disaster.

Bryson Piscitelli is an intern at The American Conservative and the editor-in-chief of Carolina Review at UNC-Chapel Hill. This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.