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Monumentaries: Toward a Theory of the Apergon

Let me propose the neologism “monumentaries” to describe the notion that monuments are not just material documents of the past, but also the expression of a contemporary editorial point of view. Monumentaries are historical buildings that have been purposefully altered post facto in order to influence our perception and conception of them. Any careful observer of historic buildings knows that, in order to keep them standing over the centuries, some measure of alteration is always necessary, but that doesn’t make every monument a monumentary. We have to distinguish between alterations due to low-level maintenance, like replacing a couple shingles to fix a leaky roof, and alterations made to express an idea, like replacing a metal roof with clay shingles in order to create a more historically accurate image of the building at the moment of original construction. Only the latter type of alteration, insofar as it is justified by both a technical need and an intellectual proposition, is an intentional attempt to turn the monument into a monumentary. Monumentaries are both material and conceptual objects meant to operate discursively in various social, cultural and political realms, as well as disciplines such as architecture, art, history and others. I will focus in particular on the material that is added to monuments in order to transform them into monumentaries. This material, while often presented as a purely functional repair meant to be invisible, or at least dismissible, is in fact a very important aspect of the aesthetics of monumentaries. As modifying aesthetic, it also operates as a conceptual supplement, able to reconfigure, sometimes slightly, other times completely, the ideas previously associated with the monument. While material supplements to monuments are typically intentionally obvious and easy to see, their conceptual status is paradoxically rather difficult to decipher. Building on Derrida’s analysis of artistic parerga, the supplements described in Kantian aesthetics, I will argue that monumentaries are created through supplements that are both the same and different than those at work in other artworks: the same in the sense that they are conceptually extrinsic to the work, materials that need to be removed in order to appreciate the work, but paradoxically indispensable and therefore constitutive of it; different in the sense that they are meant to physically and conceptually protect and preserve the work for the future. What follows is an attempt to refine the concept of the supplement as it pertains to architecture by theorizing the apergon, the part of architecture that protects it until it will have been fit to stand on its own, that is to say fit to be understood.

As in film documentaries, architectural monumentaries must strike a careful balance between staging historical evidence objectively and presenting the filmmaker’s or the architect’s subjective editorial point of view. In the ruins of the ancient Roman theater of Arles, France, the editorial point of view of the contemporary architect appears as an attempt to present a speculative image of what the ground-level arcade of the theater’s façade might have looked like when it was originally built in the first century BCE. Pedestrians walking the perimeter of the theater, along the Rue de la Calade, are presented with a white iron fence placed along the exact location where the ancient façade once stood. A few blocks of limestone that were clearly the base of the façade interrupt the fence. As the visitor nears the northwest corner, these blocks rise up and turn into a one-story wall with three arches flanked by Doric pilasters. The limestone ashlar is crisply rendered, suggesting that it was laid more recently, during a major restoration campaign carried out at the end of the nineteenth century, and retouched between 2005 and 2009.

Interestingly, the hand of the architect, the editorial expression, recedes at key moments—for instance, in the case of the new ashlar that stops short of covering the whole surface of the wall in order to reveal remnants of weathered ancient stones. The new stones frame the historic evidence, staging it for us to appreciate as an “untouched” document of the past. The need to show these original stones cannot be overstated: they are the objective historic documents that legitimate the contemporary work being expressed next to them. Yet paradoxically, their status as documents of ancient Rome is not clear prima fascia. Their deformed shapes and lack of carvings make them partially illegible as historic evidence. The stones alone cannot perform their appointed task as legible, unaltered documents of the past. They require a supplement, an explanation, an expert opinion, an editorial point of view, which the surrounding restoration is there to provide: if the weathered stones appear framed by a partial replica of a Roman theater, then the visitor is gently predisposed to read them as ancient Roman stones. After a visit to Arles circa 1905, Sigurd Curman, Sweden’s influential National Antiquarian, praised the “sensibly and instructively executed supplementary works which identify themselves clearly without spoiling the overall impression of the monument.”

The physical building material that makes up monuments can sometimes be an opaque document—difficult to read. Precisely this opacity legitimates the need for a contemporary supplement that will illuminate its meaning—document and supplement are mutually constitutive. But the supplement, by definition, needs to appear secondary to the document, even if without it the document cannot function as such. So contemporary architects have to pour a great deal of creative effort into making their work appear reversible and unobtrusive, even if, in the case of the Arles Theater, it would be physically impossible to separate the new stones from the ancient Roman ones without inflicting some degree of material damage to the latter.

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