World's Most Controversial Monuments
Outgoing president Alan García wanted to leave Peru a surprise and hoped a 120-foot statue of Christ would protect Lima. But not everyone likes surprises—not Lima’s mayor, informed only days before its June 2011 unveiling, and not locals frustrated that construction was outsourced to Brazil.
García’s surprise statue certainly isn’t the first to spark controversy. Some of the world’s most impressive monuments have backstories of bickering, which, in addition to good gossip, give travelers insights into local culture, history, and priorities. Even when a monument’s construction is well publicized, a positive reception isn’t guaranteed, whether because of differing aesthetic tastes, costliness, or partisanship.
A recent case in point: the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.—27 years in the making. At its dedication on October 16, 2011, opposition to the memorial’s outsourced-to-China design and its execution overshadowed the celebration. Poet Maya Angelou went so far as to state that the inscription on the memorial, a quote from King, made him “look like an arrogant twit.”
A series of such controversies at the National Mall inspired Kirk Savage to write the book Monument Wars. He notes that even the development of the Washington Memorial—today accepted as a national treasure—was a battle. “The Washington Monument itself took over 50 years to build. There were incredible problems,” Savage said in a PBS broadcast about the MLK Jr. monument hullabaloo. “Nobody really wanted an obelisk.”
Not all monuments are set in stone; sometimes, what nobody wants never materializes. Earlier this fall, in a poor province of Vietnam, construction was halted on a nearly $20 million tribute to mothers of martyred soldiers from the Vietnam War. The project’s spiraling costs had made it too unpopular—even among the family of its central figure, Nguyen Thi Thu, who died in December 2010. “My mother’s soul would not be happy with this,” daughter Le Thi Tri ultimately told the press.
Outside Madrid, unhappy locals have railed against a certain site for so many years that the government has formed a commission to recommend modifications. Read on for the inside story on that and more monumental controversies.
Valley of the Fallen, Spain
Dictator Francisco Franco ordered the construction of this monument outside Madrid to honor those who died for his cause during the 1930s Spanish Civil War. And he enlisted political prisoners to carve the massive basilica into a mountainside—infuriating many Spaniards. After years of demonstrations and debate, in May 2011, the government assembled a commission to evaluate its future. Its initial recommendation calls for Franco’s body to be removed from the site.
African Renaissance Monument, Senegal
President Abdoulaye Wade didn’t win any popularity votes when he funneled millions into the construction of a monument to the African Renaissance. A waste of money wasn’t the only reaction to this 160-foot bronze colossus unveiled in April 2010. It depicts a stylized muscular man with a baby in his arms, emerging from a volcano and pulling along a half-naked woman—and has been criticized for both skimpy clothing and sexism.
Brown Dog Statue, London
A small dog statue in London’s Battersea Park looks harmless, but it’s a 1985 replacement of a statue with a fraught backstory. The original terrier was erected in 1906 by a group opposed to the use of animals in medical experiments. It displayed a plaque condemning pro-vivisection students at the University College. Outraged and embarrassed, those students destroyed it. The new statue is plainer, sans fountain or plaque, but it is still a terrier, modeled after the pet of sculptor Nicola Hicks.
Che Guevara Statue, Bolivia
Infamous revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara fought for the rights of the poor, inciting passions along the way. While some condemn his violent methods or philosophy, to the farmworkers in the town of La Higuera, he remains “Saint Ernesto.” There, on the spot where the leader of a guerilla Marxist movement was captured and executed, residents dedicated a bust in his honor in 1997.
Beatles Monument, Mongolia
The statues of Buddha and Genghis Khan that loom over Mongolia have some unexpected company: a brick guitar-shaped memorial to the Beatles in downtown Ulaanbaatar. In 2008, Mongolian sculptor Den Barsboldt molded this tribute to the Fab Four, who won fans in some circles for their music—and for representing Western democratic freedoms. Mongolia had a peaceful, democratic revolution, but the older generation still doesn’t want to give this monument a chance.
Crazy Horse Memorial, South Dakota
The Sioux fought unsuccessfully to block the development of Mount Rushmore on hallowed Native American ground. Out of defeat, they decided to erect their own monument: the Crazy Horse Memorial, which is being carved into Thunderhead Mountain within eight miles of Mount Rushmore. Yet it has sparked its own controversy within the Native American community. Some view its construction as an attack on the landscape and an affront to Crazy Horse’s beliefs.
Second World War Monument to the Soviet Army, Bulgaria
Soviet-era war memorials honoring Red Army soldiers are often vandalized. But this WWII monument in the capital, Sofia, got an especially colorful makeover in June 2011: fresh paint transformed the soldiers into Superman and other pop-culture figures. Tourists and locals flocked to see the monument, but the Bulgarian Culture Minister Vezhdi Rashidov was not amused, calling the makeover a “crime.” The soldiers have since been scrubbed to their original state.
Christ of the Pacific, Peru
Former President Alan García may have thought he was leaving a gift for his public, but the 120-foot Christ of the Pacific has been nothing but a monumental headache since its surprise construction was revealed in June 2011. Lima’s mayor was angry at not being consulted, while others questioned why it was designed and built in Brazil, not Peru. The one aspect that can’t be debated: Christ of the Pacific is now the world’s tallest Christ statue.
Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, Washington,D.C.
Civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. finally got the monument treatment in Fall 2011. But if people were frustrated by the 27-year wait, they’ve got new complaints, starting with the chosen design by Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin—as opposed to an African American, or at least American. And why was only half of his body carved? Poet Maya Angelou believes the inscription on the memorial, a quote from King, makes him “look like an arrogant twit.”
Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain, London
“A drainage ditch,” “muddy bog,” and “municipal paddling pool” are some of the descriptions of architect Kathryn Gustafson’s Lady Di memorial, inaugurated in 2004. Troubled by misfortune, the memorial fountain has flooded, dried up, been vandalized and littered, and caused accidents due to slippery steps since its unveiling. Vivienne Parry, Diana’s so-called confidant, said it succinctly: “Here was the most celebrated Briton in 25 years, and this [memorial] is something you’d trip over before you realize it is even there.”
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin
After budget battles, arguments over aesthetics, and political power trips, Germany’s national Holocaust memorial was finally dedicated in May 2005. Designed by Peter Eisenman, the 5.5-acre monument is a charcoal-colored stone slab labyrinth. The slabs are protected by an anti-graffiti coating, which, coincidentally, was manufactured by the same company that produced poison gas for the Nazis.
Statue of Arthur Ashe, Richmond, VA
Having civil rights activist and athlete Arthur Ashe’s statue in the eternal company of white heroes of the Confederate States has enraged Richmond’s African American majority. Added to Monument Avenue in 1996, the sculpture depicts Ashe carrying a book and tennis racket, while a crowd of children reach up to him. From afar, it looks like Ashe is striking the children. Adding insult to injury, Ashe’s statue is shorter in stature than those of its Confederate company.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Washington, D.C.
Former president Bill Clinton inaugurated the $48 million-, 40-years-in-the-making memorial to FDR in 1997. Days before, people wondered if the dedication would happen as Clinton sided with a group of disability activists threatening to protest if a statue of a wheelchair-bound FDR wasn’t added to the site. The project passed with Congress just before showtime, and in Spring 1998, Robert Graham created a life-size freestanding figure of Roosevelt in his wheelchair, as an addition to the memorial.
Columbus Lighthouse, DominicanRepublic
The cross-shaped Columbus Lighthouse, El Faro a Colón, was built in 1992 for the 500th anniversary of the explorer’s arrival; the island was Spain’s first New World colony. A chapel at its center contains his tomb and, allegedly, his bones. But bigger than the controversy over Columbus’s remains or legacy—many blame him for the extermination of the indigenous Taino Indians—was the eviction of thousands of impoverished local residents to make room for the lighthouse. When its giant megawatt beams powered on, the outlying homes suffered blackouts. Now, at least, it’s illuminated only occasionally.
Yasukuni Shinto Shrine, Tokyo
This shrine is dedicated to the 2.5 million—and counting—soldiers, sailors, and airmen who have died since the Meiji Restoration of 1868. It sounds straightforward enough until you learn that war criminals are among those honored ranks. One man from Seoul had his own reason to be enraged in 2005 when he found his own name listed: “I am neither a war criminal, nor a dead man,” he told the press.
Monument to the Revolution, Podgarić, Croatia
The futuristic, Beetlejuice-esque monument is among a number commissioned by former Yugoslavian president Josip Broz to show off the strength of the Socialist Republic. Dedicated to the Revolution of Moslavina and created in 1967 by sculptor Dušan Džamonja, it drew huge crowds of visitors in the 1980s. Since the Republic disbanded in the 1990s, the monument and those like it have lived a lonely, neglected existence in the Eastern European countryside.
Monument of Lihula, Western Estonia
Condemned for glorifying those who fought for the Nazi cause, this monument has relocated three times since its inauguration in 2002—hopping from Pärnu to Lihula in 2004, then on to its present home in Lagedi in 2005. It features a soldier wearing a WWII German helmet, Estonian flag on the wrist, and the Cross of Liberty on the collar. Nowhere does he display a Nazi emblem; the German war attire was enough for him to be evicted—twice.
Statue of Riel, Manitoba, Canada
Louis Riel, the Che Guevara of the North, led an 1869 revolt against Canadian expansion. The first statue in his honor, designed by Marcien Lemay and Étienne Gaboury, featured a naked and deformed Riel caught between two walls. It aimed to juxtapose Riel’s stately self with his radical self. Unveiled in 1971, it was relocated in the early ’90s to the grounds of St. Boniface college, near Riel’s final resting place, due to dislike of the designers’ aesthetic. Another, more stately representation of Riel was erected in its place.
Ties Monument, Zagreb, Croatia
Many claim that ties originated in Croatia, but a debate rages on as to what region or city was the birthplace of the men’s accessory. People in the Turopolje region adamantly believe that ties came about when local girls decorated soldiers there for war, while the town of Velika Gorica believes it was the birthplace. Regardless of which it is, the placement of random tie sculptures throughout the Croat capital in 2011 has angered residents who don’t see the Zagreb necktie connection at all.
Fallen Angel, Madrid
Sculptor Ricardo Bellver’s Fallen Angel statue (El Angel Caído) in Retiro Park had Catholic officials gasping when it was unveiled. Said to be the world’s only statue dedicated to Lucifer, it is also rumored to have been the meeting place for satanic rituals in the 1950s and has been exorcised by several priests. Rising 666 meters above sea level (the evil number of the Beast in the Bible) doesn’t help stave off those whispers.
Memorial of Rebirth, Bucharest,Romania
With a pointed marble pillar and woven-basket crown three quarters of the way up, this odd-looking obelisk quickly earned less dignified nicknames like “potato on a stick” and “the donut on a spike.” It was unveiled in August 2005 to commemorate the 1989 overthrow of Communist-era dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu. But many Romanians feel the positive message was muddied by sculptor Alexandru Ghilduş’s ugly and abstract design.
Havis Amanda, Kaartinkaupunki, Finland
Finns have been blushing at Ville Vallgren’s nude mermaid statue on Market Square since 1908. Women’s rights groups in particular have railed against the fountain as belittling and objectifying. The fact that the featured sea lions appear to be wagging their tongues at the mermaid certainly doesn’t help Vallgren’s claim that it’s a symbol of Finnish rebirth and emergence from Sweden’s shadow.
The Statue of Peace, Montevideo, Uruguay
Sculptor José Livi’s bronze Lady Peace has a tumultuous past. When the statue was unveiled in 1867, she remained partially empty-handed. Despite protests against her brandishing a sword, one was added in 1877. Eleven years later, a bolt of lightning damaged the statue. Critics who disliked hypocritical Lady Peace for gripping a sword were delighted, and a broken chain was placed in her palm. However, Livi had the last word: he returned a sword to her hand during renovations in 1940.
Peter the Great, Moscow
Scandal swirled well before Zurab Tsereteli’s monument to Peter the Great went up in 1997. Locals questioned why a statue of its sort would take up residence in Moscow, when Peter the Great effectively snubbed the city by making St. Petersburg the capital of Russia instead. And the monument’s monstrous size and looks don’t help. Moscow may yet succeed in off-loading it to another city; in October 2011, authorities in Arkhangelsk and Petrozavodsk put in bids.
Queen Victoria Statue, Dublin/Sydney
Lady V’s statue took residence in front of Dublin’s Leinster House in 1904. The threats began when the building became the official seat of the Irish Free State’s parliament. After decades of debating what to do with the old gal’s unpopular statue—dubbed “the auld bitch” by James Joyce—she was put on the market. Finally, in 1983, the Sydney City Council picked her up.
India Gate and Canopy, New Delhi
Sir Edwin Lutyens designed New Delhi’s version of the Arc de Triomphe in 1931 as a war memorial for WWI and Indo-Pakistan soldiers. Three decades after the original statue of King George V was removed from the canopy (post–Indian independence), renowned Indian sculptor Ram Vanji Sutar worked on a colossal statue of Mahatma Gandhi as a substitute. However, feuds between urban planning councils and remarks from citizens have left the canopy empty.
Don Quixote Statue and EvaPerón Mural, Buenos Aires
Love her or hate her, Eva (Evita) Perón now has her own big attention-grabbing mural that literally overshadows a statue of iconic literary figure Don Quixote. While Evita was a champion of charities and the women’s suffrage movement in Argentina, she was also criticized for being corrupt and calculated. Unveiled in July 2011, Daniel Santoro’s mural of this controversial figure in Argentine history has received similarly mixed reviews.