Every bit as a poem or a tragedy, a monument transmutes the fear of the passage of time, and anxiety about death, into splendour
— Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space
What if a longstanding monument or a building can slice through history (time) and geography (space) to provide past and present insights on the construction of place?
Essentially this has been a question explicitly carried throughout one aspect of my ongoing research on spatial political economy and the urban question. Namely, my attention over the past decade or so has been grappling with how struggles over space within the urban built environment can be revealed by homing in on monuments, memorials, and statues to reveal something meaningful about struggles in and against state power.
Over this period of time, I have explored these issues both theoretically through the notion of the ‘material structure of ideology’ (in International Studies Quarterly, with Andreas Bieler) as well as empirically through a detailed examination of the Monument to the Revolution in Mexico City (in Journal of Latin American Studies).
Most recently, my contribution to a special journal issue of Art & the Public Sphere brings together my latest statement on monuments in order to consider further the Monument to the Revolution as a socially produced, conflictual, and dynamically changing site in the struggle over public space and its memorialisation. The Mexican artist-architect Juan O’Gorman captures some of this architectural history in the economic and vernacular references to social reform and national character in the set image to this post, ‘Paisaje de la ciudad de México’ .
Since its opening in 1938, the Monument to the Revolution at the Plaza de la República has been a pivotal fulcrum of state power in abetting the changing geography of state space. Equally, the site has experienced contradictions and differences stemming from socially produced space across time, in the form of periods of state crisis and, most recently, state ‘rollback’ and ‘rollout’ under neoliberalisation.
Drawing from Raymond Williams, The Country and the City my article addresses both neoliberalising and differential structures of feeling as they bear on the space at the Monument to the Revolution. It does so by situating the Monument to the Revolution within the urban question and how neoliberalisation has unlocked local and aesthetic meanings that have become commodified, not least through the extraction of monopoly rents. Further, my article spotlights simultaneous contemporary contestations of state power and impulses of socio-spatial struggle over difference articulated in and around Plaza de la República at the monument. In so doing, the hope is that my article contributes an important pedagogical focus to the special journal issue by addressing both homogenising and differential structures of feeling inscribed in spaces of capitalism in the twenty-first century.
My earlier work sought to meaningfully expand on Frederic Jameson’s claim in Architecture Theory Since 1968 that ‘something is to be said for Lefebvre’s call for a politics of space and for the search for a properly Gramscian architecture after all’. My extended purpose in this most recent article is to revisit the ongoing processes of neoliberalisation impacting on the Monument to the Revolution and disclose how some of the most recent developments of urbanism are shaping social space at the site in Mexico City.
The way meanings and values are lived in actual places and how architecture can be an essential aspect of a structure of feeling in expressing social sentiments is therefore the backdrop to the argument. Equally, my article proceeds to deliver a pedagogical focus on memorialising monuments by, first, detailing some of the forces of state power impacting on the built environment, by drawing inspiration from Walter Benjamin. Monuments may have served as places of pilgrimage and the legitimation of state power but they can variously be perceived anew, through protest and confrontation, by proponents of reform and revolution so that such sites may also become a fulcrum for the rebuke of state power. Hence, citing Benjamin from ‘Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century’, ‘. . . we begin to recognise the monuments of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled’.
The significance of considering the Monument to the Revolution not just as a space of state power but also as a fractured space of difference and ruinous tendency for the capitalist state therefore emerges. To address capitalist space and in order to produce a spatial political economy of place construction, I extend these insights with attention cast towards the urban question, the notion of abstract space, and monopoly rents under neoliberalisation. These aspects act as a pedagogic vector through which to assess the different structures of feeling linked to the ongoing neoliberalisation of the Monument to the Revolution and its contestation.
Spatial political economy—a term coined by Frank Stilwell—necessarily turns our attention to the everyday realm of structures of feeling as an extension and contestation of capitalist social relations of production within abstract space. Across the grid of urban space the street is regarded as a crucial place of movement and circulation, order and resistance and so too is the monument. The construction of monuments can be critically assessed as the seat of abstract space, laden with institutional power and the spatial logistics of the state. The pensador Juan Villoro in his compelling tour through the spaces of Mexico City in El vértigo horizontal, offers a window on the structure of feeling of the Monument to the Revolution and its long architectural tradition. Originally, it was part of ‘a luxurious transitional space’ where people would pass through but not remain. Hence the Monument to the Revolution was regarded as ‘la gasolinero más grande de México’: the biggest gas station in Mexico. But beyond this structure of feeling there have also been past and present struggles over differential space, or spaces of difference, at Plaza de la República. Such struggles over alternative spaces and structures of feeling are also about challenging the state and the violent abstractions of capitalism.
My conclusion is that past spaces of revolution will be at the hub of redemptive movements in the present to produce alternative structures of feeling, all as class struggles in the constitution of future space.
The set image reproduces Juan O’Gorman ‘Paisaje de la ciudad de México’