Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

Keeping History Messy

Robert Bevan speaks to Tribune about his new book 'Monumental Lies' – a sweeping account of the recent conflicts over statues, monuments, and built heritage.

The toppled statue of Edward Colston lies on display in M Shed museum on 7 June 2021 in Bristol, England. (Polly Thomas / Getty Images)

‘Well, I wouldn’t start from here,’ goes the old joke about giving directions. It’s how Robert Bevan introduces his ideas to me. He is attempting to plot a route out of the gridlock where contemporary identity meets the built environment. From Rhodes Must Fall in South Africa, to the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, Bevan has some useful directions to give. The former editor of Building Design, Bevan is the one of the most compelling progressive voices in the heritage world—and he is a self-described ‘reluctant participant’ in the culture wars. Using his nuanced knowledge of architectural history, he is attempting to unpick some of the myths and straight lies deployed when architecture is weaponised. We sat down to discuss his new book, Monumental Lies: Culture Wars and the Truth about the Past, and to explore some of his solutions.

‘It was important to me, not to just moan, but to think through how we might make some progress.’ Bevan’s research is underpinned by some of the foundations of architectural and political theory, from John Ruskin to Jos Boys (of the Matrix Collective), David Graeber to Antonio Gramsci. His leitmotif is the Alpine city of Bolzano-Bozen, a tri-lingual town, overflowing with Habsburg/German and Italian history. It is home to what is said to be the ‘largest Fascist artwork in Europe’, the bas-relief frieze of the former Fascist HQ. The city is a useful exemplar for Bevan because a series of overlaid narratives play out in its built environment.

‘To many in Italian Bolzano, the Fascist iconography simply evolved into symbols of Italian [rather than German or Austrian] local identity… And most citizens of Bolzano-Bozen […] go about their business without noticing…’ He writes in the book. The frieze has now been overlaid (layering is one of Bevan’s prescriptions), with a quote from Hannah Arendt, written in German, Italian, and the local dialect, Ladin: ‘No one has the right to Obey’. ‘The choice of words for Bolzano is a clever, layered commentary on the Fascist slogan BELIEVE, OBEY, FIGHT, carved into the frieze which […] remains visible beneath the new, lucid letters.’ Bevan notes. ‘The monument is preserved but its meaning has been changed.’

In the UK, we have a curious fixation with statues. Challenging this hegemony has become an imperative for Bevan. ‘While I feel forced to engage with these ideological debates, it’s useful to remember that they don’t matter as much as people think. The ultimate nexus of change isn’t culture, it is people—it’s class, political economy or relationships of production.’ Why then does he participate in this culture war? ‘Architecture is always an expression of existing social relations,’ he says. ‘Exposing the real existing social relations might just help the real struggle. I’m engaged in a Gramscian ‘War of Position’, but I readily admit that culture wars aren’t very helpful. They are most often a losing battle for the left, because the left doesn’t hold the real levers of power. Even worse, when there are small victories, there is a danger that they give the appearance of progress rather than actual progress. Nevertheless, we can’t leave the field empty—we can’t leave it to the right to dominate ‘heritage’ and therefore get to control the historical discourse.’

One of the key ideas in Monumental Lies is that we can read the city as a source. Bevan’s approach to history focuses on material culture and artefacts, as important as texts, in the tradition of the History Workshop Movement and the likes of the Marxist historian Raphael Samuel. ‘These themes grew out of my previous book The Destruction of Memory. A lot has changed since 2006, but if anything, the subject has become more salient and gained public attention. These battles over statues and identity, and the consequences of reconstruction on truth are ongoing, and I think a clear-eyed look at what is actually going on in the historical process of how cities are made would help repudiate some of the lies.

‘Authenticity is a crucial idea, in part because it is essential to ensuring that the material evidence of history is accurately preserved,’ Bevan says passionately. ‘This evidence can help us understand the intent behind architectural actions. Unless ‘history’ strives for truth, it’s just propaganda.’ Good practice in history demands constant re-evaluation of the past—challenging interpretations of evidence, and seeking more new material to enhance truth.

So if this is a War of Position, is Bevan on the front line? ‘No,’ he says—‘other people are much braver and really put themselves on the front line, like protecting refugees or resisting evictions. Actually, there’s a real danger of being complicit on the ‘heritage front line’. The ICOMOS [International Council on Monuments and Sites] and the Blue Shield have found themselves in murky water politically. Destruction of heritage has been used as a casus belli—at times a justification for NATO intervention—but also a way of conducting war, shaping the way wars are being fought.’ Here Bevan’s work touches on other contemporary architecturally inclined political/cultural practice—for example, Forensic Architecture, whose analysis of the destruction of architecture has been used as evidence in investigations into war crimes and human rights violations.

Why is the built environment a battlefield in the culture wars? For Bevan, ‘The Beauty Myth (that beauty is fixed and unchanging, determined by God or by Nature) and deep nostalgia are the ideological underpinnings that support the right wing position on how we should treat the built environment.’ Bevan’s historical-materialist perspective gives him some of the tools to tear through the ideological wrapping: ‘Essentially, right wing analysis of architecture and statues, from people like Create Streets and our new King, is simply there to prop up a project of power relations. We get pseudo-scientific studies, for example claiming Chester is the most beautiful city in the world because it has the most buildings that conform to the golden ratio. Now, I’ve got nothing against Chester, it’s a great city, but the idea that you can rate the beauty of a place mathematically is ridiculous. The same goes for the idea that the past was an intrinsically better place.’ Dominating the built environment is essentially a proxy for class war.

Bevan does empathise with the right’s nostalgic tendency. ‘So much has been lost in the UK, and that is painful, but the motorcar is more to blame than anyone else… I do believe that keeping the material evidence of history matters, it’s just that we can’t leave it to a narrow minority to order that history.’ History gets highly edited and distilled, when the narrative is controlled by elites—this is one of the book’s key themes. ‘When the layers of memory are not being recorded, this does a disservice to the real historic complexity of any place. So we go back to the idea of intent—is the intent to expose, or cover up? I’m asking people to reflect.’

Expressing doubt and keeping history as a live struggle are key parts of Bevan’s project. ‘I’ve got sympathy for Gary Younge’s position—that all figurative statues of people should be taken down. It’s a good provocation. But actually, the fundamental question is about agency: who decides what is memorialised, who decides on the shape of the city? I prefer building up layers rather than stripping back.’ Bevan goes on to say that he doesn’t think it’s helpful to be doctrinaire about the subject. ‘I support a case-by-case approach, and there is the possibility of a good faith ‘retain and explain’; learn from Bolzano-Bozen. I’d encourage people to embrace complexity—Keep Britain Messy.’