Do Civilizations Die When They Stop Building Monuments?

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Seeing the Arc de Triomphe on a trip to Paris got Rochelle Gurstein thinking about the way monuments and architecture reflect society's accomplishments. Musing on the matter at The New Republic, she reviews the additions to the arch in 1923 (the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) and 1944 (plaque "marking the liberation of Paris). "Did history in France--and perhaps Western Europe as a whole--the history of great men, nation-building, and empire effectively end with the barbarism of World War II?" she asks.

It's a question that has intrigued many, and Gurstein notes this while mentioning the philosopher Francis Fukuyama and his famous thesis about the "end of history" after 1989. But it's the place of monuments and architecture in particular that fascinates her.

We strolled in one of the most perfect cities in the world, a monument to the energies of eighteenth and nineteenth-century neoclassical imaginings, which conjured into existence not only the Arc de Triomphe but also a Pantheon that surpassed the one in Rome in scale, mass, and grandeur, not to mention the imposing, rational order of Baron Haussmann's redesign of the city during the Second Empire. And then there were all those other breathtaking edifices—the Cathedral of Notre Dame, the Sainte Chappelle, the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower. … But we had seen no architectural projects of comparable magnitude or ambition that belong to our own time.

Perhaps, she concludes, certain political "dreams" and their architectural commemoration "can only belong to those who still have grand capital cities to build."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.