resarch > urban > The Migrating Monument
Anthony Auerbach

‘The Migrating Monument’, Tom Vandeputte in conversation with Anthony Auerbach, in Supplement Material, edited by Caspar Frenken and Tom Vandeputte, Rotterdam/London: Perhaps (Perhaps), 2010. A discussion on architecture, anxiety and monumentality after Aerial Reconnaissance Berlin.

Anthony Auerbach: Planet

TVDP: Aerial Reconnaissance Berlin documents series of ‘low altitude aerial surveys’ you did as part of the International Necronautical Society (INS) ‘Inspectorate’. Where does the preoccupation with this aerial surveys come from?

AA: That would be very low altitude aerial surveys. My first expedition of this type was an aerial survey of the carpet in my studio, done from a height of about 90 centimetres. I’d worked for years in that studio on drawings. They had gradually become more and more intense, complicated, and, in the end unmanageable, partly as a result of what you might call centrifugal tendencies — an interest in architecture, landscape and cartography, that eventually drove me out of the studio — and partly as a result of allowing the space of drawing to be infiltrated by other spaces — like that of games, maps and so on. There was one piece that got quite out of hand, so I resorted to subdividing a grid that was already part of the structure of the drawing and notating it, making a map of the drawing in 81 parts, encoding the ‘topography’ of the drawing like a map encodes a landscape. That way I hoped I’d be able to discard the original drawing. The aerial survey came about from the wish to turn the practice of drawing ninety degrees. So instead of recording something in some system of marks and traces in the vertical plane — a picture, I turned my attention to recording the marks and traces that might remain of the practice of drawing — on my carpet. An aerial survey is series of overlapping vertical photographs that covers the whole terrain. I realised that an aerial survey, examining a surface, moving rhythmically back and forth across it, implies a notion of reading. That idea of reading, reading material, was what I brought to the Berlin project.

TVDP: The locations you surveyed in Berlin are described as ‘sites of erasure’. What do you mean by that?

AA: Whereas the sites I surveyed in the context of my own practice were more or less accidental or biographical, the INS’s ‘central concerns’ suggested criteria for the selection of sites for inspection that could be formulated precisely: ‘locations where no trace can be found of incidents or persons of interest to the INS; where there is evidence of attempts to cover or erase the traces of incidents or persons; where there is evidence of attempts to conceal the erasure.’

That sounds like a contradiction of a method — aerial photography — that’s supposed to be all about registering traces. But why not record erasure, or whatever is written over erasure? It’s often said of cities, Berlin included, that they are like palimpsests. To me, this always seemed a rather sentimental notion, presupposing that the text, once erased and overwritten, could be recovered: made legible again if one only could inspect it closely enough, or, presupposing at least that the obscure remnants of erasure and inscription — the present state of the surface — will stand in for this promise of legibility. I’m all for letting a look — inspection — arouse such desires, but the point in Berlin was to examine surfaces where there really is no trace of any ‘original’ mark or inscription, and to let the material complicate the method.

Finding such sites in Berlin is not difficult if one considers the places of the most intense, most intentional and ruthless erasure tend to be those sites that have been memorialised or monumentalised in various ways. Berlin, the city the INS has designated the World Capital of Death, exhibits an unusual abundance of such places.

That line of investigations has led me to think quite a lot about monuments — and monumentality, so I was interested in your approach. How do you identify a monument?

TVDP: In our project we talked a lot about the notion of monumentality as distinct from monuments. The term monumentality seems to suggests the effect, disconnected from the object. For example, scale is a property that seems to stick stubbornly to whatever we conceive of as monumental.

Berlin: Schwerbelastungskörper

AA: Do you mean size? Monumental means big. Monuments are supposed to look like they are not going to move, therefore should be very heavy, and to look heavy, they should be big, shouldn’t they. I would put the emphasis on seeming immobile — though in fact monuments often migrate. A thing called the ‘Schwerbelastungskörper’ [heavy burden body] in Berlin could be embodiment of monumentality in its pure form. It’s a large concrete cylinder built for no other reason than to be very heavy, and it has no other inscription than ‘Denkmal’ [monument] since it is a protected building and has recently been restored. Although it’s indestructible, it became dilapidated. The object was originally built to test the foundation system for the colossal architecture of the ‘Welthauptstadt’ [world capital] that Hitler and Speer imagined; it is a monument to a failed utopia, albeit a Nazi utopia.

TVDP: We like to think of it in terms of scale, because it seems possible to understand this traditional aspect of monumentality in terms other than its physical dimensions. Attention seems to be a concept which allows us to re-conceptualise this aspect of monumentality: eventually, monuments need to attract attention in one way or the other.

AA: One way or another. Recently, I came across an advertising agency whose specialty is what they call ‘monument veiling’. If a monument is being restored or redeveloped, they will dress the scaffolding with monumental advertising posters. They offer brand-owners building-sized advertising opportunities in prominent locations, and monument-owners revenues to support redevelopment. If the client monument doesn’t need the money, or the agency can’t sell the space, they make replica façades — a simulation, an idealisation, one might say, of the monument that is for the moment hidden by this very simulation. In Berlin, they also provide replica façades for monuments that don’t exist anymore, or, as the sponsors of the such façades would wish: don’t yet exist again. In any case, it looks as if monumentality and advertising are engaged on the same territory in the battle for eyeballs.

TVDP: Debord considered monuments as part of the society of spectacle. There is an interesting part in his technical notes to the films he made in the late 1950s. Some of these films document the situationists’ ‘dérives’ through Paris. In the notes on ‘On the Passage of a Few Persons Through a Rather Brief Unity of Time’ Debord remarks that, whenever the camera would risk filming a monument, they would shoot the scene from the opposite direction: that is, from the point of view of the monument. In our project, we have appropriated this idea and extended it: we have made a photographic documentation of the city of Rotterdam, shot through the eyes of monumental statues: Erasmus, Pim Fortuyn, Hugo de Groot, Monsieur Jacques ... The view of each statue produces a double image: it consists of two photographs, documenting the statues' perspective through both of their eyes, together forming a stereographic image. We liked how it appears as a necessarily futile attempt to revive these figures of the past; to engage with the issue of personification; and of course to work with the idea of the collection of monuments as a representation of a city's historical conscience.

AA: The thing you really pick up on in your project isn’t so much the ‘spectacle’ and Debord’s aim, somehow to suppress it by not picturing monuments — I imagine that would only make their presence only more palpable, and would set up quite a complicated protocol for a dérive in a place like Paris ... what you pick up on is a connection between monumentality and surveillance. Debord’s prohibition on the spectacular aspect of monuments brings him to inhabit their gaze. You do that literally, in order to view the city through the eyes of a monument. I suppose the question that arises then is: What kind of subjectivity a monument would have — and how that subjectivity is mediated by a look. Clearly, a monument that presumes to admonish the public in the name of the dead, like a system of surveillance, a monument stands in for a super-ego (like you say, the conscience) that should somehow moderate the behaviour of the people affected by it.

TVDP: I am interested in the persistent fantasy that we are being watched by monuments. Recently, I did some research on the pavilions that Nicholas Hawksmoor designed for the gardens of Castle Howard. The pavilions are predominantly replicas of ancient funereal monuments; most are placed on the upper points of the slightly sloping terrain. In the first monograph on the architect, the layout of the gardens was described as evoking a sense of constantly being watched. Similarly, the steeples of the churches he built in London are replicas of funereal monuments that are raised above London’s rooftops, appearing to watch over and admonish its inhabitants. In the case of his church in Bloomsbury, the steeple is a miniature replica of the Halicarnassus mausoleum – or actually, of a reconstruction of the mausoleum, which appears to be literally placed on top. In contrast to this collection of ancient funereal monuments, it is not at all clear what the incoherent collection of statues accumulated over the years in a city like Rotterdam is to remind us of and how it relates to the city's contemporary condition.

AA: I’m not sure if it’s safe to generalise from a case that might be the extreme, but certainly, examining a system of monuments like Berlin’s brings to light aspects of monumentality that are not so obvious in other cities.
The notion of the super-ego I mentioned already in connection with the surveillance comes out of psychoanalysis. It that context, it is the component of the personality that extends beyond individual subjectivity and indeed is often regarded as the internalising of collective figures of repressive authority. Aerial Reconnaissance Berlin suggests the Freudian concept of neurosis could be applicable to a city. At any rate, I’m prepared to treat Berlin as a ‘case’. On the face of it, the symptoms are abundant.

One could say that monumentality is the architectural form of anxiety. As such it is associated on the one hand with death, and on the other hand, with neurosis — to align it with vaguely familiar Lacanian terms: on the one hand, the real, and on the other hand, the imaginary. The monument is architecture pitched too far, for too much is demanded of it: to protect us from the dead, to preserve us till the resurrection, to give meaning to death. Architecture’s hyperbole becomes its horizon: the aspiration that can never be attained, the ideal that is written into the language of architecture. To the extent that monuments provide the repertoire of forms that make up architecture’s self-image, to be self-consciously a work of architecture, any building has to display monumental qualities. That’s what I mean by the migration of monuments. Partly — there are also several examples in Berlin of monuments literally moving from one place to another, being banished, buried, melted down, renovated, resurfaced etc.

Architecture, like monumentality, incorporates the image of its own ruination, because the image of the ruin preserves the ideal that was never attained while recouping that failure as the pathos of tragedy. The true hero has to be a broken statue. Ruination can also make a monument out of a city, as I discovered in a draft plan for the devastation of Berlin from the air. [note 1] Most of the ruins of Berlin were later levelled, but some are preserved as monuments. Monumentalisation fixes the desired image for a moment, but at the same time precipitates the further anxiety that the ruin will decay, just as much as if it were an ideal. On the other hand, the decay of monuments arouses the anxious desire to restore them, and thus, often, to repress the only thing that was arousing about them.

An archaeologist will tell you that the best way to preserve a find is not to dig up in the first place, or if it’s exposed, to bury it. But that wouldn’t satisfy the spectacular demands of monumentality. In Berlin, the iconography of the ruin tends to predominate because the trend, under various regimes, seems to have been against figurative monuments: Bismarck was moved from his place in front of the Reichstag to somewhere in the woods, the Kaiser Wilhelm Denkmal was demolished, the statue of Karl Liebknecht was never erected on the pedestal put up for it, Lenin was buried in a sand pit on the outskirts of Berlin. Since 1990, the norm for new monuments and revisions of old ones has been what I call sentimental minimalism — a kind of empty solemnity, that, at its most bombastic refuses inscriptions. For instance, the so-called ‘Holocaust’ memorial (officially, the central memorial to the ‘Murdered Jews of Europe’) bears no inscription except the visitor rules which state: ‘Alle Anweisungen des ausgewiesenen Sicherheitspersonals sind zu befolgen’ which should be translated: ‘All instructions of authorised security personnel are to be followed.’ Which may as well replace the whole monument. The point is, the super-ego function of monumental sculpture — how it incorporates repressive authority — can also be fulfilled by a blind design-style.

But I wanted to give just one example of the fascination and anxiety of ruins. The Topography of Terror, is an institution which now occupies the block near the centre of Berlin formerly occupied by the headquarters of various branches of the Nazi security apparatus: SS, Gestapo etc., buildings previously occupied by various other institutions — an art school, a museum of prehistory, for instance — and aristocratic mansions. The buildings were severely damaged during the war and were later flattened, but the site was not redeveloped. In the mid-1980s buried parts of the demolished buildings were excavated and became the setting for a didactic exhibition on the Nazi state security institutions and their victims. The present building and landscape design is in fact the third attempt to formally recover the site as a monument. Nothing came of the first architectural competition. The prize-winning design of the second was half built then demolished again. In the present complex, the exposed remains of the cellars are displayed for contemplation, while the didactic exhibition has been moved into a new pavilion built in an ultra-orthodox minimalist style. Parts of the foundations of other buildings have been newly exposed — and hence are rapidly disintegrating. Signs indicate where the previous tenants had set up shop between 1933 and 1945, but nothing marks the place where the previous, failed attempt to monumentalise the site was erased. Whereas in the makeshift Topography of Terror exhibition of 1987, the quasi-archaeological remains served to authenticate the didactic exhibition, now they are preserved as a relict of the exhibition and serve to authenticate the institution. Stripped of their annotations, the remains would be trivial — after all, this isn’t Rome! — if it weren’t for their function as ruins in the monumental landscape design. The excavations suggest the anxiety of conflicting desires: to get to the bottom of things — literally, by exposing the foundations of Nazi institutions — and to re-present the recent past as pre-history — for which purpose the landscape design exploits an established repertoire of architectural readymades — literally, stuff that’s already there.

TVDP: Is there something similar going on with your aerial survey The State of New York? You talk about a survey of a map that’s turning back into a landscape.

Anthony Auerbach: Untitled (Cities and Empires)

AA: I’d have to say you are right about that, although I do something different with it. There is an obsessive quality to recording the state of decay of the terrazzo map in two and half thousand vertical photographs, and certainly I play with everything that’s arousing about ruins and everything that’s dizzying about looking down.

The survey I did is also something like what you expect an archaeologist to do. The day after I finished my survey, a team of architectural conservators started work on the map. They are actually more used to dealing with ancient mosaics than terrazzos from the 1960s, but it seems they thought the New York State Pavilion would be good practice for their students. Curiously, the first thing they did was sweep away everything that my survey recorded, in order to create their own status quo ante, which they duly photographed. Although they claimed to be sensitive to the ‘philosophical issues’ of their profession, their idea of conservation was repairing the terrazzo panels as if they really were ancient mosaics, thus restoring them to the banality that had inspired their earlier neglect. You can’t blame a conservator for having a professional interest in ruins, but the episode highlights the particular attraction of this building. The pavilion designed by Philip Johnson, and advertised at the time as the ‘The Tent of Tomorrow’ should have been demolished like the rest of the World’s Fair pavilions. It was donated to the City of New York because the sponsors wanted to avoid the demolition costs, but since no permanent use could be found for the building, it gradually fell into disrepair, the roof started falling in and so on, until it really was a ruin. Apparently, the architect was utterly delighted that his building had achieved that status. The building’s accidental prestige and the pathos of its ruination prompted calls for its restoration. It’s probably only in Berlin that a ruin would proposed as a permanent use for a derelict building — although, even there, they probably wouldn’t put it quite like that.

This is not the first time that the aspirations of modernist architecture have been affirmed by their ruination. Architecture, as long as it’s architecture, seems bound to build monuments to a future that is already lost.


Anthony Auerbach: Planet, aerial survey, 442 photographs, assembled and mounted in 4 sections, each 1565 x 1525 mm, 2001 [back to image]

Berlin: Schwerbelastungskörper, 1941–42 (photo: Dieter Brügmann, 2005) [back to image]

Anthony Auerbach: Troy from Untitled (Cities and Empires), vertical projection, aerial survey images, place names, 2008 (installation: Queens Museum of Art, 2008) [back to image]


  1. Attack on the German Government Machine, draft plan, 15 August 1944 (National Archives), cited in Aerial Reconnaissance Berlin 5.2.(5–6).1[n17]

... return... return: urban matters
Statement to the INS Inspectorate Committee 2009
INS Inspectorate Berlin: Surveillance Report 2010