Architects’ Perspectives on the issue of Confederate Statues

Charlottesville, Virginia was recently visited, or more aptly invaded by, members of nearly fifty different organizations loosely falling under the umbrella of the Alt-Right. The event was called “Unite the Right” and it became a coming-out party for white supremacists. The alleged purpose of the event was to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E Lee. An independent militia came purportedly to ensure the right to free speech. Virginia has an open carry law (including semi-automatics) and instead Second Amendment rights trumped First Amendment — for the weekend, sleepy Charlottesville became a war zone and three people died.

The removal of the statue was first raised by high schooler Zyahna Bryant who in her petition to City Council wrote, “My peers and I feel strongly about the removal of the statue because it makes us feel uncomfortable and it is very offensive.” In the course of debating the fate of the statue, many solutions were put forth, one of which was to create “counter-monuments.” Instead of removing and thereby erasing history, some argued (architects and architectural historians among them) to augment the park with context that would provide historical perspective; the statue would remain but a larger story about slavery and Jim Crow would take Robert E Lee off his high horse, so to speak.

In a recent article in ARCHITECT, Aaron Betsky (Let’s Entomb our Past Evils) promoted this idea. In my opinion, the approach does have merit, or did — before the Unite the Right rally (but, I had wondered whether adding context would lead to vandalism and more pain to those most impacted by the continued reminders of slavery, Jim Crow and ongoing discrimination). Since the recent invasion of the Alt-right, however, the discussion has shifted — I can no longer countenance keeping the statue because to do so would be to stand beside these groups in common cause — an idea wholly repugnant. In fact, for architects to even be debating this point is in itself, hubris. Shouldn’t we really be asking Zyahna Bryant and others who find the statue offensive, what they want?