Lines of Sight

Architecture can be like a conversation. A very slow, expensive conversation. The centre of cities like New York or Hong Kong are like bustling parties full of people angling for attention but not wanting to veer too far from convention. Some cities like Singapore or Barcelona have made grand fashion catwalks at their centre, so pretty buildings can preen to the appreciative, slightly bewildered, self-congratulatory applause of people with money.

Temple cities are theological arguments, sermons and counter-sermons, schism and revival, self-conscious reinventions of grand traditions. In Angkor, the serene omnipresent faces of Bayon are a Buddhist reply to the Hindu temple mountain of Angkor Wat up the road, punctuated in symbolism and stone. And so too it is in Washington, D.C.

When I visited the Jefferson memorial, an enthusiastic young woman came up to me on the steps to politely and arbitrarily testify her Christian faith. It’s an appropriately argumentative way to exit the monument to a man suspicious enough of religion he edited his own version of the gospels to take out all the miracles. (I doubt she saw a contradiction, and perhaps she should not: American civic experience is a broad church). The monument itself was actually only dedicated in 1943, two hundred years or so after the birth of the figure at its centre. It’s neoclassical, or in other words, pretends to be two thousand years older than it is.

The monument was suggested and dedicated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was an admirer of Jefferson, and also presided over a massive international war, and an expansion of federal government quite opposite to Jefferson’s white-knuckled anti-federalism. Both of them were rather aristocratic and patrician, and both found themselves with the financier class as political enemies; like many farmers, Jefferson was heavily indebted, and hated bankers. FDR could use the monument as a tribute to an American and Southern genius while also getting political cover for his now-established constitutional upheaval of shooting fascists and stopping people starving. FDR’s own memorial is a bit of a disorganized liberal wishlist elsewhere on the pond. It speaks well of the man that his own wish was for no more than a simple plaque.

Jefferson’s statue looks straight at the Whitehouse, the doorway framing his view to see little else. It’s a little unfair. Tommo’s restless mind rarely settled on one thing that long, and he was far from that breed of singleminded politician who only cares for power. Still, if the statue were true to life, under the well armed kindergarten teacher of the modern US state, Jefferson would more likely be furiously scribbling letters calling for blood to run in the streets rather than gazing with sphinx-like detachment across the water at the house of America’s monarch.

While Jefferson watches the Whitehouse, Martin Luther King watches Jefferson. Dr King’s statue is a new addition, but I was in Washington for the first time, so I had the privilege of seeing it as part of the existing landscape, rather than an afterthought. It leaps forward out of a mountain ridge of white marble with the metaphorical literalness of a comic book superhero, or Sun Wukong 孙悟空 bursting out of a stone egg.

Dr King’s statue stands near the water’s edge, letting him keep an eye on a brace of Virginians on the east shore – the Washington monument, George Mason, and then the Capitol itself further in the distance. But it is the small temple housing the slave-owning author of the Declaration of Independence that falls squarely in the middle of his gaze. Thomas Jefferson’s statue is not hewn from stone, but cast in neoclassical bronze. So the republic’s third President sails forth in memory clad in black, while his watcher stands in the sun and the snow, in seraphic white.

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