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Monuments to men: ego and stature solidified in stone

colosses architectural review

Immense statues commemorating the power and hubris of tyrants cultivate the idea that masculinity equates to the undisputed singular rule of an autocrat

From the Colossi of Memnon to the long-vanished Colossus of Nero, rulers have long envisaged themselves as demi-gods and articulated this in sculpture and architecture. The intention is primarily one of extending power; to tower over space and time. The larger, or the more insecure, the ego, the larger the monument. In overtly patriarchal societies these tend to express the clichés of hyper-masculinity – muscular figures bestriding the earth as their dominion – often referring to actual leaders, however exaggerated their physiognomy.     

‘In authoritarian regimes, vanity monuments often come under benevolent guises’

One of the reasons these hyper-masculine structures have appealed is that there is a certain charismatic attraction to monumental displays of strength. A case in point is the confidence, or illusion of confidence, of ornamental Art Deco architecture. New streamlined deities of a technologically driven age replaced the old, from the lightning god of New York’s General Electric Building to the ‘Winged Figures of the Republic’ overlooking the Hoover Dam. It’s easy to miss, in the chrome-laden spectacle, that these were adaptations of old ideas such as Gothic grotesques and Egyptian statuary for the age of corporate advertising, or that there was something monstrous, as well as liberating, in the idea of human-machine hybrids they portrayed. With awe, there is always a hint of fear. 

nero rome architectural review

nero rome architectural review

Big men of stone or steel have long populated the Earth, such as the Colossus of Nero in Rome 

colosses architectural review

colosses architectural review

The looming stone of the Colossi of Memnon near Luxor tower over the delicate human figures visiting the monument to Pharaoh Amenhotep III, who reigned in Eygpt during the XVIII Dynasty

There was, however, something of a guardian spirit to such figures; a sense that mankind was transcending its bounds, in service of the people rather than to reign over them. This is evident in the mighty light-bearing sentinels of Eliel Saarinen’s Helsinki Central Station and more literally in the embodiments of Safety and Security that flank the entrance of the Guardian Building in Detroit. However well-intentioned, articulations of power come with the implication of servitude. Atlantes and caryatids, the sculpted humanoid figures that act as columns in architecture, may be idols but strain under the weight of the institutions they prop up.

In the early Soviet Union, there was, initially, genuine revolutionary optimism. Tsarist monuments were removed and replaced with monuments to emancipatory figures. One of the first monuments built by the Bolsheviks was ominously to the French revolutionary Robespierre; the architect of the Reign of Terror. The monument fell to pieces within days. By the time the Soviets’ own Great Terror was unfolding, work was under way to build the world’s tallest building, the Palace of the Soviets. Turning down Modernist entries from the likes of Le Corbusier, Mendelsohn and Gropius, the Stalin-directed jury had chosen a Boris Iofan-led design for a huge Neoclassical skyscraper with a towering

‘Free Proletarian’ figure, soon to be replaced instead by Stalin’s predecessor and legitimiser of his cult of personality, Lenin. The skyscraper remained unbuilt, with its materials being used in the war effort against their Nazi enemies, whose own muscular monumental figures mirrored theirs – Stakhanovite ‘Worker and Kolkhoz Woman’ by Vera Mukhina having faced off against Josef Thorak’s Aryan Übermenschen at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris.  

Rex architectural review

Rex architectural review

Source: Ajit Solanki / AP / Rex / Shutterstock

Organised by the divisive nationalist Narendra Modi, the Statue of Unity in Gujurat exudes modesty but is more interested in legacy and prestige than concilatory gestures 

In authoritarian regimes, vanity monuments often come under benevolent guises. When the despotic Turkmenistan leader Saparmurat Niyazov commissioned the building of a Neutrality Monument, it came in the form of a space-age tripod with a gold statue of himself rotating so it always stared at the sun. Given they are largely symbols of power, force is rarely far from the surface. Some are literal expressions of battle – the architecture of the Shtyki Memorial is based on bayonets while the Monument to the People’s Heroes in Shanghai opts for rifles. There are more haunting monuments to the obscene human cost of war elsewhere: the Douaumont Ossuary containing the bones of 100,000-plus First World War soldiers, which shines at night like a lighthouse over the former battlefield, the so-called ‘nose tombs’ in Japan that house ‘trophies’ brought back from Korea, the many faces of the sombre but startling Vietnam’s Heroic Mother Statue, and the colossal Motherland Calls figure in former Stalingrad, her face almost deranged with grief and vengeance.  

‘The ultimate downfall of monuments lies within the impulse to build them – the fear of mortality’

Other monuments require more nuanced readings. The Statue of Unity, depicting Sardar Patel who helped to unite India, is posed as a model of dignity and humility – somewhat clashing with the fact it was designed expressly to be the largest in the world. In the case of the African Renaissance Monument in Senegal, the monumental family depicted might be interpreted as a dynamic affirmation of Pan-African pride were it not also an exemplar of the corruption of its benefactor and beneficiary Abdoulaye Wade. The futuristic Monument to the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet is anything but and recalls the triumphal arches that European colonial powers placed in lands they’d seized. Even symbols of peace can be used for ulterior motives. Just as monuments of Christ have been used to whitewash violent oppressive regimes, so too have colossal icons of Buddha, as in Myanmar where both the authorities and Buddhist monks have been implicated in ethnic cleansing, anathema to their spiritual father’s teachings. 

world fair architectural review

world fair architectural review

Source: Everett Collection Inc / Alamy

Soviet workers face off against Nazi Übermenschen at the 1937 World’s Fair 

A latent orientalism, regional and historical ignorance, and the superficial nature of social media encourage those in the West to look at the East with bemusement and distancing, seeing a vast stainless-steel Genghis Khan on horseback erected in Mongolia, for example, as despotic rather than an ambitious attempt at development. The level of political discourse is such that colossal monuments to the ‘God of War’ Guan Yu in Jingzhou or a ‘Young Mao’ in Changsha are likely to be connected to the question, ‘What does this tell us about China’s intentions?’, revealing a paranoid even racist view of China as inscrutable and potentially nefarious. 

A fallacious aspect to the prevailing view of progress is that the rest of the world somehow must ‘catch up’ with the West. We appear to have moved beyond raising monuments to tyrants and are presently more likely to pull them down (see the removal of Confederate symbols or opposition to Franco’s Valley of the Fallen). Yet this optimism may be misplaced. Power in the West has accumulated not in megalomaniac despots but in corporations and bureaucracies, and their leading shareholders and functionaries, with little transparency or accountability. We should be more wary of logos than statues. 

‘The key is to construct monuments that encourage questions rather than impose singular answers’

Just as Russia or China are periodically portrayed as bogeymen in the West, so an image of the West is denigrated in turn in order to suggest its decline and the geopolitical ascendancy of others. Many of the criticisms involve portraying values cherished in the West as weaknesses – secularism is godlessness, relativism is nihilism, multiculturalism is fragmentation. As many prejudicial views do, these serve functions. In the case of Russia, it reaches its apotheosis. Putin’s claims to legitimacy are founded on the ‘remasculinisation of Russia’, as the academics Oleg Riabov and Tatiana Riabova put it, giving it back its pride, power and status, and turning the tables on its adversaries by painting them as now weak and emasculated. 

genghis khan architectural review

genghis khan architectural review

Source: Andrey Khrobostov / Alamy

Erected at 40m tall in glistening stainless steel, the Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue near Ulaanbaatar is currently listed as only 69th in the world

Putin lambasts the West as ‘genderless and infertile’ while simultaneously showing off his virility as the pinnacle of the Russian concept of muzhik (a difficult-to-translate term that loosely equates to a macho alpha male figure) in absurd choreographed stunts. He does so for the same reason that he endorses monuments to earlier potentates, and that he supports rebuilding demolished Tsarist cathedrals; to show Russia as the last bastion of civilisation compared with the collapsing decadent West, and to position himself, especially in times of wavering popularity or economic stagnation, as the father of the people, wedded to Mother Russia, in whose hands the country will never again be humiliated. In doing so, he is virtue signalling to his base. Putin realises that controlling views of the past is a consolidation of power in the present, and a way of laying claim to the future.

The ultimate downfall of monuments lies within the impulse to build them – the fear of mortality. Every tyrant’s monument is a declaration not just of power but hubris and vulnerability. One of the first targets when regimes topple are the monuments. 

imre nagy budapest architectural review

imre nagy budapest architectural review

Source: Andrew Fox / Alamy

Rather modest by comparison the statue of Imre Nagy in Budapest seems to remain ideologically threatening to prime minister Viktor Orbán: the place of the communist leader will be taken by a monument to the victimes of a short-lived communist regime in 1919

Might it be best then to abandon the idea of creating these giants, given it has legitimised the rule of tyrants for so long, perpetuating views that masculinity equates to the unquestioned singular rule of an autocrat? There are certainly other approaches. The abstract spomeniks of former Yugoslavia are haunting and idiosyncratic ways of memorialising, appearing alien and inviting further inquiry. Another way of avoiding egocentrism is to use the symbolism of animals, from the oxen of the Sardarapat Memorial to the mythical Kelpies of Falkirk. It is worth noting, however, that there are innumerable other aspects and approaches to life than power and politics, however crucially they matter. 

Other monuments are possible, just as other masculinities exist beyond the conqueror or the tyrant: for instance, in those who have the strength and integrity to be kind, empathetic and to stand against injustice. These can be articulated in creative, complex, moving and subversive ways. The key is to construct monuments that encourage questions rather than impose singular answers. 

In the city of Budapest there is a poignant example in the statue of Imre Nagy, the communist leader who was executed for defying Moscow in favour of the Hungarian rebels of 1956. Until recently, his ghostlike statue stood gazing towards the parliament; not a saint or a god or a giant but something greater; a flawed man who had turned against tyranny. That he continues to trouble the conscience is tacitly confirmed by the fact that the statue was moved on the orders of the right-wing prime minister Viktor Orbán. The real monuments to the human spirit, troubled and troubling, are the ones that authoritarians of all variations wish to hide.

This piece is featured in the AR March 2020 issue on Masculinities + W Awards – click here to buy your copy today