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Architectural Landmarks And The Making Of A Nation

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When I reached the deck, there was a beautiful, bright sky which stung my eyes after so many days below, and I had to squint to see at all. Then I saw it, a sight that would burn itself forever into my memory. Grandpa Giuseppe had told me about Lady Liberty . . . When you see the Statue of Liberty, you will be in America. – Antonio Russo, Wrestling with the Devil Nations are built around shared symbols and values. Landmarks, tangible and rooted in a place, can be potent symbols. They can be used and experienced, and a genuine, unenforced attachment can be developed with them. Landmarks are the fundamental elements through which cognitive maps, our abstract understanding of the world around us, are anchored to the real world (Epstein et al. 5). Under the auspices of landmarks, a piece of land can become a place, a scattered settlement a city, and a bounded territory a nation.

In the broadest sense of the word, anything can be a landmark. It could be a run-down apartment building, a butcher-shop hanging freshly-cut meat, or even a humble postbox. But obviously, all landmarks are not the same. A postbox can’t be compared to a local court-house, which in turn can’t be compared to a towering war-memorial. Anything can be a landmark, but not all landmarks have the same presence. This presence is what human geographer Yi-Fu Tuan calls “visibility” (161). Here, visibility is not mere visual prominence; it can also be in collective consciousness, established by significant events or media such as literature, images, and film.

How do events affect landmarks? In the words of Pierre Nora, by becoming “lieux de mémoire” – sites of memory, where “memory crystallizes and secretes itself” (7). Red Fort in Delhi is one such site. It was the site of focus of the 1857 Mutiny, the site where the first Indian Flag was hoisted, the site of Nehru’s announcement of India’s awakening, and is the site of the annual Independence Day speech. Red Fort is a monument of national significance because of the national memories it consecrates.

But not all landmarks gain significance this way. Singapore’s Merlion is an example of a designed landmark that has attained national significance. The physical design of the landmark, with support from literature[footnoteRef:2] and consistent branding, has certainly contributed to its success. But the biggest contributor is probably the significance that the city-state has developed for itself on the international stage. [2: The Merlion is an important subject in Singaporean poetry, most famously in Edwin Thumboo’s “Ulysses by the Merlion” (Chong 5).]

Roland Barthes identifies a similar relationship between Paris and the Eiffel Tower. By itself, the Tower is an empty symbol that means nothing. He suggests that its immense cultural significance comes from its absorption of the significance of Paris itself, like a “lightning rod” (5). After all, the Eiffel Tower was built only in 1889. Paris had achieved cultural and political significance by the Renaissance, following which it would establish itself as the home of the Enlightenment, “The City of Light” (Ardagh et al.). All over a hundred years before the Tower.

These examples illustrate how places affect their landmarks just as much as landmarks affect their places. Each landmark adds something to a place. But that something is not just herself; it is informed by the place and all its landmarks from before her time. The landmark will then join its older counterparts and a changed place in informing all the landmarks that will arrive in the future. To put it otherwise, landmarks affect each other through the veins of their place and the stream of time.

Great landmarks, ones that are highly visible, have a powerful presence in this network. They are also excellent at consolidating the identity of a place and projecting it outwards. But the problem with them is that they are often distant, mediated symbols. In the United Kingdom, a relatively small country, a survey reveals that only 36 percent of its people have visited the Buckingham Palace (Dawar). This is why we need local landmarks, ones that people encounter in their everyday lives.

In the words of Tuan, creating a sense of nation is about transferring “the sentiment that once tied people to their village, city, or region” to “the larger political unit” (117). And this is what local landmarks can achieve. They are, by nature, local; by projecting a connection with the nation, they can coalesce these two identities. By being a part of people’s lives, and standing as a symbol of shared identity with other people in the country, they can foster a sense of nation from the ground up.

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Place Order

What does a nation brought to life with architecture, with landmarks of all orders, look like? To answer this, let us look at France.

It must be noted that in its early history, France used homogenization processes that might not be acceptable in a modern democracy[footnoteRef:3]. Furthermore, it presently has many luxuries that developing countries may not be able to afford. However, architecture has certainly played a pivotal role in the development of the French nation. Today, it could be said that architecture is the most important way in which France continues to develop its national identity. [3: Weber has written an authoritative account of how Parisian culture was enforced upon the rest of France to create a national identity post the French Revolution.]

The French nation is home to many, many landmarks. There is nothing desirable about quantity in itself; it works in here because these landmarks were built over a period of more than a thousand years. Each landmark or two stands as a monument to its own time, and is therefore of as much value. And by conserving these landmarks and adding new ones progressively, the state has cultivated an architecture that makes the nation feel like one. None of the programmes adding landmarks seek to topple the Eiffel Tower or raze down cities[footnoteRef:4]. They simply seek to add, slowly but surely. They understand the importance of lesser landmarks and working from the bottom up[footnoteRef:5]. [4: An exception here is Haussmann’s famous renovation of Paris between 1853 and 1870. Twentieth-century historian René Héron de Villefosse had called it “perhaps the greatest crime of the megalomaniac prefect” (qtd. in Glancey).] [5: Deputy Mayor of Paris Missika has written about the bottom-up approach at the core of Reinventing Paris, a recently announced urban-intervention programme still in progress.]

In France’s long history of state interventions, most projects have focussed on Paris, the city at the centre of its national identity. Cities have two important roles – they are hosts to landmarks, and they are themselves landmarks in the larger scheme of the nation. And Paris is one of the greatest city-landmarks there is. Political and economic forces, along with arts and literature (cue English writers obsessed with Paris) certainly contribute to the reputation of a city. But Parisian architecture has awarded the city a reputation of its own.

Paris is full of landmarks – big and small, rough and shiny. But equally important are the city’s characteristic boulevards, streets, and everyday architecture. The city has preserved its nineteenth century core almost entirely, while regulating new buildings to ensure a harmonious setting. In doing so, the city has nourished an everyday architecture that ties its landmarks together, heightens their value, and renders the city itself an incredible landmark.

It is clear that France cares greatly for its architecture and urban environments. This is epitomized by the fact that unlike most countries, it makes the use of architects obligatory for practically all construction[footnoteRef:6]. In this light, it is no wonder that France is the world’s most popular tourist destination (with almost all attractions being architectural), and that its capital city has such a mythic status. [6: The exceptions are individual houses with surface hors oeuvre nette (net floor area) less than 150 square metres, and minor renovations (Code de l’urbanisme).] (International Tourism Highlights 18-22)

But even in France, for all the importance architecture assumes, it forms only one side of a multi-faceted national identity. In a thorough, all-round approach to nation-building, architecture can only be one part of the overall strategy. Nevertheless, it is certainly a critical part. Architecture might not be able to build a nation by itself, but it is very unlikely that a nation can be built without thinking about architecture.

After all, landmarks are powerful symbols that are integral to the making of a place. Great landmarks can symbolize entire nations. However, to foster a sense of nation from within, the nation needs its state to develop local landmarks that can project local identities onto the larger national identity. As we can learn from France, thoughtful initiatives from a sensitive state can go a long way in building a proud, content, and beautiful nation.

Works Cited

  1. Ardagh, John Anthony Charles et al. “Paris.” Encyclopædia Britannica, 26 Nov. 2019, Accessed 27 May 2020.
  2. Barthes, Roland. “The Eiffel Tower.” The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies. Translated by Richard Howard, University of California Press, 1997.
  3. Dawar, Anil. “Britons love an eyeful of the Eiffel.” Express, 8 Dec. 2011, Accessed 28 May 2020.
  4. Epstein, Russell A et al. “The cognitive map in humans: spatial navigation and beyond.” Nature neuroscience, Vol. 20, 11 (2017): 1504-1513, doi:10.1038/nn.4656.
  5. International Tourism Highlights, 2019 Edition, World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), Aug. 2019, doi: 10.18111/9789284421152
  6. Missika, Jean-Louis. “Reinventing Paris from the Bottom Up.” NewCities, 25 Jan. 2015, Accessed 27 May 2020.
  7. Nora, Pierre. “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire.” Representations. Translated by Marc Roudebush, No. 26, University of California Press, 1989, doi:10.2307/2928520.
  8. Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. University of Minnesota Press, 1977.
  9. Weber Peasants into Frenchmen
  10. Code de l’urbanisme Article L421-2

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