Monuments to Power


Having lived and traveled in Europe over the past year, I have seen a collection of castles, palaces, cathedrals, and fortifications. From the Neuschwanstein Castle to the Palace of Versailles. From the Canterbury Cathedral to German gun emplacements on Normandy beaches. All were built as a representation of power—military, political, ecclesiastical, or some combination of the three.

Part of the reason for the density of such things in Europe is that there has been a developed, agrarian civilization here for thousands of years. Vestiges of the Roman Empire’s reach still dot the landscape across the continent and the British Isles. History runs deep here, especially compared to my American context. Yes, Native Americans were around for hundreds of years before Europe colonized North and South America, but with a few notable exceptions, they were not given to making grand stone structures that would last for centuries.

As power has in many ways become less tangible, that is less physical, in our current world, I wonder what the monuments will be for future generations to walk around and ponder or to romanticize those who built and worked among them. Our mayors do not live in mini-fortresses within walled cities. Our rulers no longer live in castles, though a certain bit of stately palaces certainly remain. Even our militaries have become unmoored from fortifications as advances in weapons and tactics make fixed fortifications largely obsolete.

Will a tourist group some day walk around a former Amazon data center? Will tours lead them through the rows of servers that processed millions of transactions and data requests every second, but will then have fallen silent? It seems unlikely, and we as North Americans don’t seem focused on preserving such history outside of articles and books.

There are exceptions. A few years ago, we took a long weekend in Canada and visited the Diefenbunker, a cold-war era shelter for the Canadian government in the event of nuclear attack. As someone who grew up in the second half of the Cold War, I found it fascinating and sobering. It is a monument with political and military purpose, and yet more of a testimony to the limits of both of those powers.

We don’t build for permanence the way our European ancestors did. Many of the cathedrals I have seen have stood for nearly one thousand years. Will anyone be able to find Willow Creek, Saddleback, or the Crystal Cathedral even one hundred years from now? I would be surprised. This is partly caused by our desire for speed. Even today with modern construction, I suspect it would take years to construct an old-world cathedral. In their time, it took generations.

We rarely engage in projects which will not see completion in our tenure, let alone our lifetime. Perhaps it is a product of modern market forces. More likely it is a reflection of our self-centeredness. We want credit for our accomplishments in our lifetime. If we live with that restriction, there are some things we will never accomplish.

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Filed under History, Progress

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