Friday, December 19, 2008

Why are there no Monumental Wonders of the Modern World?

I was walking back from a meeting in Paris this morning and passed by the Arc de Triomphe. It is truly a magnificent structure, quite large, decked with all sorts of fantastical and impressive sculptures. One usually sees pictures of it from quite a distance, so its immensity was surprising. That, and its familiarity, tend to diminish what is actually a very impressive thing.

Apropos of my recent blog post on being able to imagine alternate realities, as I walked by, I contemplated what an extraordinary amount of both time and money must have been expended in the Arc’s construction in the early 1800s. Construction was begun in 1806, but the Arc was not fully completed until the mid 1830s. It took hundreds of men more than twenty years to build what is simply a monument to some sort of greatness.

It occurred to me that the modern world has never even attempted such a monument on anywhere near such a scale. A comparable effort today consisting of thousands of men toiling for tens of years, with modern engineering methods and modern building materials, would be mind boggling in its grandeur and sophistication. Our newest monuments, such as the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, are such small endeavors in comparison as to not even be mentioned in the same breath.

Of course the modern world does build impressive structures; the new World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, at a cost of tens of billions and construction time nearing ten years, will certainly be impressive. But our biggest buildings today are all commercial endeavors – their patrons spend the capital required with the express intention of receiving a return on that investment. And they look like commercial endeavors.

Can you imagine spending such a sum or amount of time constructing a massive monument which does nothing other than celebrate some sort of greatness? The thought is absurd.

It made me wonder why the modern world has no great monuments.

A couple of thoughts occurred to me:

First, monuments of this scale generally require egos. If you think about the wonders of the ancient world: the pyramids; the Taj Mahal; the Arc de Triomphe (I know, that’s not really ancient, but you get my point), they all were commissioned by a king, emperor or dictator. In the Arc’s case, it was Napoleon Bonaparte, returning from victory at Austerlitz.

Well, none of the countries of the modern world which can afford such largesse have any kings, emperors or dictators. We’re all liberal democracies.

Second, most of these great things were built to celebrate some great victory by someone over somebody else. Well, as Francis Fukuyama pointed out in the early 1990’s, with the ascension of liberal democracy as the government of choice among the first world, history is essentially over (one could certainly argue about the recent rise of Islamic Fundamentalism – Is there a new monument in our future?).

Finally, and this is a point closely related to the first, a liberal democracy is not wont to squander its resources doing something so inane as building a monument. It would much rather spend its money providing for its people or investing in its infrastructure.

Now, I am not naïve enough to actually believe that history is over. But given these prerequisites for grand monument-building, it makes me wonder when, and under what circumstances, the next great wonder of the world will be constructed. If Fukuyama is really correct, the answer is never.

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