Monumental spaces

With over eight million people, Bangkok is a dense city, especially at its city center. It feels like every square meter of public space, including the sidewalks, is taken up by a shop, stall, or street cafe, and one cannot walk the downtown streets without mastering the quick sideways turn to slip between people or even avoid a scooter.

Except one spot. In the middle of one of the biggest traffic circles, about dead center of the city, rises a nearly 30 foot (8 meter) obelisk, surrounded by 5 statues of military men posed in heroic style.

It’s called the Victory monument, and with its expanding base takes up a wide patch of precious downtown space. It was erected in 1941 to great fanfare, to celebrate a Thai military victory over the French, and so it was built to inspire Thai pride for many years afterwards.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t inspire pride. If anything, for the few who know the history, it’s overstatement causes embarrassment:

  • It was built to commemorate a “victorious” war, only the Thai’s did not so much win as the superior power of the Japanese empire forced an end to the conflict.
  • Thailand was awarded some land after the conflict, but not nearly as much as it demanded, and in any case lost it all within 5 years.
  • The style of the monument is 1940’s fascist architecture, which, while popular in 1941, has fallen into disrepute (along with fascist glorification in general).

Worst of all, for me, is that the entire space is made for show, not for people to actually sit and use it. The government occasionally puts up displays of the royal family, or adds festive lights, but the design and use are intended for removed involvement by citizenry…look but don’t touch. Ironic, then, that surrounding the monument are not people who take time to look, but people who are busy trying to every day make ends meet. The monument looms over little cooking stalls, people making crafts, and even a young blind boy begging for money as he recited sutras from memory.

The Victory monument is a dead space, or at least not part of a living one. It made me appreciate more a space I cross almost every day back in Granada. It’s a little square between our apartment  and the city center with a statue of a young woman, Mariana Pineda. Mariana was a young Granada woman who became a widow with two children by age 18 in the early 1800s. She then fell in with liberal reformers/insurrectionists against the government. A raid on her home discovered a liberal banner, prompting her arrest. Despite being offered leniency if she would name the people she associated with, Mariana refused, and suffered a horrible public execution by being garotted in 1831 at only 27 years of age.

The square and memorial were created some fifty years later.  At the center is a statue of Mariana, but rather than vengeful words of power, the pedestal merely denotes her as a “Heroine of Freedom.”

More striking, however, is how little of the square is taken up by the memorializing. Most of the plaza is dedicated to the present, with cafes (one noted for its chocolate churros), a newsstand, and benches. People gather there all day and well into the night (the cafes are equipped with butane heaters to fight off night chills).

It’s a place that notes the past, but is designed and used by the present.

The contrast  in the design and use of the two monument spaces is stark, and the resulting impact is undeniable.  Few people I asked in Thailand, even those with military connections, can recount why the Victory monument exists (either its purported victory or the true story). There is no connection, no life-line between the living people and the dead monument.

On the other hand, while most people cannot give the details of Mariana’s life, they know her general story, and it’s a story that is commemorated each year by the city of Granada in the square. The space creates a connection between generations of Granadinos, including Frederico Garcia Lorca, who turned her story into a popular and inspiring play.

The square allows people to live, love, and laugh next to a reminder of history, and so it makes it a part of their lives. We live as we do today because she lived before us.

Of course, my reflection compelled me to look at other monuments I have encountered in my travels. Many are monolithic structures to long forgotten events that people ignore as they pass by thinking about unrelated events here and now. Other edifices are tributes erected by governments or moneyed individuals to their own greatness, destined to be the Ozymandias statues of the future.  Some are even small niches within homes, where remembrances of things past, tasteful decor, precious art, and other bling create danger zones for children who will be severely chastised if they dare to act like a child in a space reserved by parents for showing what a great family they are.

As a history teacher, I am all about monuments to the past. Lord (and more, my wife) knows a 15-minute walk becomes an hour one if we pass historically interesting spots. But such spaces must include the living, or they are little better than dead spaces contaminated by forgotten memories.

When I used to pick up my son, Ben, from the Jewish Community Center preschool, he loved to run around the edge of a large black marble fountain in the parking lot, the bubbling blue waters contrasting with the somber plaque remembering the victims of the Holocaust. One time, an elderly man called out to us angrily, saying, “That is not a place to play. It’s to remember the horror of what happened.” I stopped for a moment, feeling guilty, but then said, “You are right, sir, but I can also think of no greater sign of overcoming that horror than the laughter and joy of a young Jewish boy, two generations removed. Can’t we have both?”

The man nodded. We let Ben run around the fountain a couple of more times, and then Ben and I sat and listened while the man told us his story.

L’dor v’dor.

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