The fraught relationships between the idea of monumentality and the avant-garde practices of modernism have been well documented. The search for a new vocabulary of architecture to express the age of industrial production – an age of structural lightness, social mobility, and bureaucratic efficiency – had thrown into question all traditional forms of monumentality. Where an architecture based on the historical styles, whether classical or Gothic, might rely on scale, ornament, and a sense of permanence to express monumental themes, the new languages of abstraction, of technological innovation, and of function, seemed constitutionally ill suited to such roles. Where modern architects like Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier took on monumental tasks, they tended to utilize the figurative devices of expressionism rather than seek solutions in abstract modernism. Of the founders of modernism, only Adolf Loos, in his designs for his own tomb, recognized the power of the reduced vocabulary of architecture, embodied in the simple cube, to express eternal values. Indeed, when Le Corbusier attempted to monumentalize the museum in the form of a glass pyramid, he was bitterly attacked by those who believed that modernism and monumentality were fundamentally irreconcilable values.

Perspective, Memorial to the Six Million Jewish Martyrs, Battery Park, New York City. Graphite and lead on yellow trace. December 3, 1967. Louis I. Kahn Collection, University of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
If monumentality was inimical to modernism, then its corollary, memory, was equally fraught with difficulty. For modernism's attitude to history itself was one of proud disdain, or rather history and its nineteenth-century progressive narrative were there to add authority to modernism's rejection of the past, to demonstrate the ultimate progress of the historical styles towards a single universal «styleless» style. As Mondrian noted, modernism had succeeded in bursting out of the old «brown» world of historicism, into the new «white» world of modern utopia. This utopia was one of space, not time, and it was celebrated in a technology and an abstract vocabulary that confirmed actions and functions in space as opposed to their historical context. Thus Le Corbusier's «ineffable space» erased all but the most significant buildings of the past in a utopian city fabricated out of transparent glass. Historical buildings were thereby monumentalized, standing isolated like tomb stones in a park, while the contemporary city looked towards an endless future of light and technical progress. If memory was to be served, as it had to be after the carnage of World War I, it was by «living monuments,» serving the immediate needs of society – schools, libraries, museums, and the like.

It was not until the redoubled carnage of World War II that a sense of the need for what was called a «modern monumentality» emerged among architects and critics. Not by accident, the questions began to surface in the early 1940s, culminating in a set of conferences, books, and articles between 1943 and 1947 that gradually laid out the possibilities for not only a new monumentality for modern architecture in general, but for a language of memorialization in itself.

From "Monumentality," in Paul Zucker, ed., New Architecture and City Planning (New York: Philosophical Library, 1944): 582.
Exiled in New York, the historian Sigfried Giedion, the artist Fernand Léger, and the architect José Luis Sert, outlined «Nine Points on Monumentality,» which opened the debate that Mumford had thought closed forever with his 1938 aphorism «If it is modern, it is not monumental.» The «Nine Points» were, in some sense, predictable enough, rehearsing the commonplaces of classical monumentality in the context of an assumed new humanism. Monuments were «symbols» for the ideas of societies, translating «collective forces» into memory, as a «heritage» for future generations, «links between past and future.» Modern architects were now challenged to bring back these expressions of «joy, pride, and excitement,» in new forms that at once symbolized the new forms of community and civic consciousness and utilized new technologies and materials in a fresh way. They proposed that «light metal structures, curved laminated wooden arches, panels of different textures, colors, and sizes» when used with equally «light elements like ceilings which can be suspended from big trusses covering practically unlimited spans,» might bring new life to the monument. Further, the new monuments could move, varying the appearance of the buildings constantly with shadows, and, at night, with projections of color and form on their walls. For this purpose, which might be used, the authors noted, for propaganda and publicity alike, new monuments should be endowed with vast plane surfaces. Set in landscaped contexts, with nature joining art through the collaboration of architects, planners, artists, and «landscapists,» these exciting forms could be viewed from the air in rapid flight or from a hovering helicopter. No longer strictly functional, the modern monument would have an intensely modern lyrical value.1

The «Nine Points» were only the beginning of a veritable plethora of articles and symposia in the mid-1940s, among which the conference and publication organized by Cooper Union professor and architect-planner in exile, Paul Zucker, stands out for the roster of its participants and the prescience of their arguments. Contributing to his collection entitled New Architecture and City Planning: A Symposium, in the section on «The New Monumentality,» were, among others, Giedion with a new essay («The Need for a New Monumentality»), George Nelson, Philip L. Goodwin, Ernest Fiene, and Louis I. Kahn.

View of Memorial to the Six Million Jewish Martyrs model, showing Castle Clinton in the background. Plexiglas and painted wood on painted base, 1968. Louis I. Kahn Collection, University of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
In retrospect, the most significant of these was the article by a young partner of the modernist architects Oscar Stonorov and George Howe, Louis I. Kahn. As Sarah Goldhagen has noted, Kahn was not necessarily the obvious choice for such a theme. Perhaps, as she suggests, his partners asked him to provide an article where they declined, or, more probably, it was Jean Labatut, Princeton professor, and architect of the extraordinary light-spectacle «The Spirit of George Washington,» mounted for the 1939 New York World's Fair, who, in declining to contribute, suggested Kahn to Zucker, even as Giedion had suggested Labatut. Whatever the circumstances, Kahn's article, entitled simply «Monumentality,» began for Kahn, and for postwar modernism in general, a fundamental reassessment of the means by which an abstract, technologically expressive architecture could be endowed with eternal values.2 His argument centered on the nature of structure, its architectonic virtues, and the impossibility of repeating the past.

The giant major skeleton of the structure can assert its right to be seen. It need no longer be clothed for eye appeal. Marble and woods feel at ease in its presence. New wall products of transparent, translucent and opaque material with exciting textures and color are suspended or otherwise fastened to the more delicate forms of the minor members. Slabs of paintings articulate the circulation in the vast sheltered space. Sculpture graces its interior.3

His vision of a new monumentality, developing that of Giedion and his colleagues, coalesced into a proposal for a national educational center. Its site was in the countryside, outside the city, «framed by dark forests defining the interior of broad strokes in land architecture.» Its structure consisted of a skeleton frame, whose «gigantic sculptural forms» provided an introduction to a building comprised of «vast spans» with uninterrupted spaces beneath and light from above «through an undulating series of prismatic glass domes.» Illustrated by Kahn's sketches, this project anticipated many of the themes of his developed monumental buildings, at the same time as firmly basing all monumentality on the power of civic community.4

Plan detail of Roosevelt Memorial model, showing Forecourt and Room. Basswood and canvas on unpainted wood base, 1974. George Pohl, photographer. George Pohl Collection, University of Pennsylvania Architectural Archives.
It was these principles that were to inform the designs of the two unbuilt monuments for the City of New York, the Memorial to the Six Million Jewish Martyrs, Battery Park (1966–72) and the Roosevelt Memorial, Roosevelt Island (1973–74). For the Jewish Martyrs Memorial, Kahn first conceived of a composition of sixteen, later reduced to seven glass pillars, each some eleven feet high and ten feet square standing on a square stone podium. Six of the piers would surround a central arched pier serving as the chapel. As in his initial proposal for monumentality in 1944, this project was literally composed of light; making out of transparency, the modernist virtue par excellence, a vision of life and hope. The first proposal for the Roosevelt Memorial also used columns, this time in stainless steel, but the final approved version returned, in Kahn's terms, to the origins of architecture itself, with an open, roofless, space approached by a forced perspectival route, like some archaic temenos awaiting its temple.5

A study of these two proposals in the light of his first published article reveals an extraordinary unity in Kahn's thought and work; indeed, within his memorials, as in the memorials of Adolf Loos, are embedded the principles of his entire postwar oeuvre, secular and religious alike. For Kahn, architecture was above all, and always, an art of memorial, but a living art memorializing living values, in forms and technologies appropriate to and expressive of their age and culture: an architecture of light and structure, space, and silence.

1. Sigfried Giedion, architecture you and me: the diary of a development (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958).
2. Louis I. Kahn, «Monumentality,» in Paul Zucker, ed., New Architecture and City Planning. A Symposium (New York: Philosophical Library, 1944): 577–588.
3. Ibid. 583.
4. For a comprehensive and nuanced treatment of these debates and of monumentality in Kahn's work, see Sarah Williams Goldhagen, Louis Kahn's Situated Modernism (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001): 24–40.
5. For a description of these two projects and their reception, see Robert A.M. Stern, Thomas Mellins, David Fishman, New York 1960 (New York: The Monacelli Press, 1995): 197, 648–649.