Thinking About the Pyramid: An (Un)Called-for Proposal

Stephanie Tripp, SUNY Plattsburgh

The (Un)Call

01 At a height of 321 feet, the Pyramid in downtown Memphis is the third-largest pyramid in the world and an integral landmark in the city skyline. Financed with more than $30 million in public funds, it was billed as the centerpiece of a massive plan to redevelop the city's riverfront and to rejuvenate its enervated downtown. Opening in 1991 amid much fanfare and boosterism, the Memphis Pyramid was home to the city's professional basketball team and served as the region's predominant concert and exhibition venue until it was upstaged five years ago by the FedEx Forum, an even newer publicly funded downtown arena. The much-anticipated economic development near the Pyramid never materialized; neither did a promised tourist attraction on nearby Mud Island. Some Memphians call the Pyramid the "Tomb of Doom," and it's easy to understand why. The four-acre arena was financed by issuing city and county bonds, and taxpayers are still on the hook for about $10 million. The Pyramid's doors closed last year, but according to a report in the Memphis Flyer, it still takes at least half a million dollars a year to keep the mammoth structure from falling into ruin (Cashiola). It's small wonder that civic leaders are desperate to find a new use for the city's biggest white elephant.

02 Several proposals have been floated, including a deal announced in 2006 in which sporting-goods giant Bass Pro Shops would take over the structure and turn it into a superstore, hotel, retail complex and aquarium, replete with a giant, bass-shaped canopy connecting it to a riverfront wharf. Other plans, including one to convert the Pyramid into a giant motion-picture sound stage, have been mentioned as well, but the Bass plan remains the most prominent, however slim its chances of coming to fruition. Public reaction to the proposals has been predictable: derision countered by promises of jobs and a broader property tax base downtown, eventually giving way to a hardened skepticism. What has been missing, of course, is meaningful public discussion and input concerning the fate of the city's most iconic public space.

03 To urge such discussion and input is the aim of this proposal, which I have developed in collaboration with my colleagues Laura Sullivan and Michael Laffey. We are all Memphians by birth (Laura), by residence (myself), or by a deeply held affinity (Michael), and during the summer of 2006 we began to discuss the Pyramid's sad, outrageous history, and to consider what actions we might take as scholars and artists. We saw the 2007 Imaging Place Conference in Gainesville, Florida, as an opportunity to develop our ideas, and we are now launching a Web site devoted to "Thinking About the Pyramid." By initiating an open art project on the World Wide Web, we hope to create a forum for voices not typically sanctioned by the planning protocols of urban development (i.e., the development board meeting, the zoning hearing, the Chamber of Commerce luncheon) and, in doing so, to insist that the Pyramid is a very public space whose fate should not be ceded uncritically to elite business and government interests.

04 The "Thinking About the Pyramid" project is not the only initiative to broaden the scope of possible public uses for the Pyramid. For example, early in May 2007 one city resident started an online petition urging the city to rescind a non-binding agreement with Bass Pro Shops and to entertain other proposals ("Memphis Man Fights"). [1] It is not our goal to rival or to supercede other grassroots efforts to give the people of Memphis more say in what happens to the Pyramid. By putting forward our "un-called-for" proposal, we hope merely to encourage more "Thinking About the Pyramid" by citizens, scholars, artists, activists, school children, smart alecks, daydreamers, and anyone else who desires to join in.

05 In this spirit, we have decided to house the project on a public-access wiki ( and to provide an interface that will enable creative and critical input from as broad a group of people as possible. I have designed a 3-D model of the Pyramid and its environs, and we will make the model available to anyone who requests it as long as they agree to contribute to the wiki and to keep any projects based on the model in the public domain. We also are working on a simple drawing plug-in to allow users to create their own images of the Pyramid based on a selection of available renderings.

06 Our charge of "Thinking About the Pyramid" extends beyond the Web as well. We have talked with local artists, activists, and students about contributing to wiki, and we plan to hold informal meetings in the near future to broaden the project's administration and vision. In addition, Michael Laffey has taken the project to the classroom. In Spring 2007, he assigned his students at Centenary College of Louisiana a project that used the Pyramid as an organizing metaphor. Given in a special topics art class on "Images of the South," the assignment begins:

The Pyramid in the city of Memphis is at the (de-)center of a topographical rectangle (wrecked-angle). The 4 corners of this rectangle are comprised by the cities of Shreveport, LA; New Orleans, LA; St. Louis, MO; and Nashville, TN. What surrounds this pyramid and falls within the (porous) borders of this "container" constitutes our "South" for this particular project. Our "South" is not THE "South" but A "South." (Laffey)

The assignment encouraged students to explore their relationship to place, a goal that is essential to the overall project as well. Indeed, one cannot really think about the Pyramid without thinking about its place in Memphis and the social, political, and ethical questions associated with place itself.

The Topographical Wisdom of the Pyramid

07 One might suggest that the Pyramid's destiny can be deciphered from its topographical connection to the city and to the riverfront. Names of surrounding streets evoke the site's complex and often nefarious history. Jackson Avenue, which borders the Pyramid to the south, and nearby Overton Street are named for two of the three men who founded Memphis on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River in 1820. John Overton, James Winchester, and Andrew Jackson christened Memphis after another great city on a great river, the ancient capital of the Old Kingdom of the Egyptian pharaohs. The city on the Mississippi, as its ancient namesake on the Nile, grew into a thriving center for trade whose prosperity owed much to the sweat of slaves. Jackson, in addition to being a military hero who would later become the seventh president of the United States, was a prosperous Tennessee planter and slave owner. Men such as Jackson would trade their crops and their slaves at auctions held two blocks from the current site of the Pyramid. The granite block used for these auctions remains in a park where Main Street intersects with the tellingly named Auction Avenue, which borders the Pyramid on the north. Several blocks to the northeast, at 826 North 2nd Street, the old Burkle Estate, once an important stop on the Underground Railroad, continues to educate visitors that Memphis served an important role in the struggle against slavery, even at a time when the city hosted one of the largest slave markets in the nation. Seated there between Jackson and Auction, the Pyramid seems an apt monument to the messy ground on which the grand civic ambitions that gave Memphis its name meet the base demands of an economic system that pays for such grandeur.

08 With this in mind, we may perhaps envision the Pyramid as an ideal site for what Gregory Ulmer describes as an "abject monument," one that commemorates a sacrifice that a society is unwilling or unable to recognize. Unlike the bronze statues and marble columns that typically populate our parks and civic plazas, ones that praise the bravery of our war heroes or the stoic resolve of our political leaders, abject monuments call attention to lives given, hardships endured, or humiliations suffered for causes that we will never see engraved in granite. To maintain a way of life it deems sacred, a society requires such sacrifices, but it remains oblivious to, indifferent toward, or ashamed to admit them. By calling attention to these sacrifices, however embarrassing or even confounding such attention may be, an abject monument encourages us to reflect on the values that shape our collective identity and to challenge or even to re-form the way we view ourselves.

09 The culture of monumentality responsible for the Jefferson Memorial, Mount Rushmore, and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier assumes and perpetuates a coherent national identity. As Ulmer writes, "Monumentality was responsible for maintaining a sense of national identity from one generation to the next (hence the mourning by one generation for the loss of the previous generation, back to the Founding Fathers)" (10). That monumentality of the bronze and marble type no longer provides communities with a satisfactory sense of collective identity is evidenced by the many controversies in recent years over the location, design, and subject matter of memorials. Memphis is no stranger to these controversies. In 2005, for instance, County Commissioner Walter Bailey led an effort to rename three downtown parks that honor the Confederacy and its leaders (Denney). Ultimately unsuccessful, supporters of the effort argued that honoring figures such as Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general, slave trader and Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, insults African Americans and hinders efforts to define the city as modern and progressive. Those opposed to the changes insisted that parks are reflections of the city's true heritage and should not be altered. The existence of a number of contested monuments within walking distance of the Pyramid supports a hypothesis that the arena would be an ideal location for an alternative practice of commemoration.

10 As the stated goal of this project is to open up discussion on possible public uses for the Pyramid, it would be premature if not entirely disingenuous at this juncture to advocate an overall "plan" for the structure. In fact, the choice of a public wiki site to host "Thinking About the Pyramid" encourages a series of discrete, idiosyncratic, and perhaps even conflicting "thoughts" to emerge. One may argue, however, that the project itself may serve as a digital abject monument inasmuch as it recognizes an abject sacrifice. That sacrifice would be the unacknowledged contribution—either through coerced or exploited labor, or in the more subtle form of onerous public debt—of generations of Memphians to uphold the collective value of civic pride. Recognizing this sacrifice through a Web monument would provide an opportunity to explore how communities mourn losses and participate in other rituals of group identity in the digital age. In addition, it would offer a way to challenge and to possibly re-form the values that led to the sacrifice in the first place.

Cues from the Pyramid's Iconology

11 Any proposal to re-imagine the Pyramid must almost certainly consider the powerful imagery already at play in the structure itself. Pyramids are imbued with a symbolism that reaches back to ancient Egypt and the pre-Columbian Americas and extends to contemporary popular culture. The founders of Memphis were clearly not the last civic leaders to cultivate the Old Kingdom analogy, and even artist Nam June Paik drew on the imagery of the obelisk for a work on permanent exhibition at the city's Brooks Museum of Art. In addition, a pyramid constructed so close to Auction Square cannot help but draw allusions to the slave labor used to build the pyramids of the pharaohs. Finally, there is the inescapable connection between pyramids, entombment, and cults of the dead.

12 In opining on their frustration with the Pyramid's plight, the editors of the weekly Flyer made this telling observation:

After months—nay, years—of an unconsummated courtship with Bass Pro Shop, Memphians are beginning to wonder if the facility isn't assuming the function of its ancient Egyptian model—i.e., becoming a tomb. Quite literally, the hopes and ambitions of a previous generation of city/county officials are interred there, along with not much else. (Graham)

As described above, the Pyramid becomes an anti-monument, stymieing prior generations of local officials from fulfilling their legacy. Yet, didn't the ancient Egyptians believe that the purpose of building the pyramids was to ensure the immortality of their kings? The contrast in logic begs the question: What is it about our culture in the early twenty-first century that a 32-story urban spectacle can condemn someone to obscurity? Questions of political legacies aside, the image of the Pyramid as a tomb offers a trove of creative associations.

13 For starters, we are reminded of a legacy of two dead kings whose influence on the city's identity could hardly be understated: Elvis Presley and Martin Luther King Jr. Each year, an estimated 600,000 tourists visit Graceland, the estate where Presley died and where his remains are buried. One week every August, coinciding with the anniversary of Presley's death, Memphis is host to a swell of tourists on a pilgrimage. "Death Week," as the locals call it, includes events ranging from an official memorial procession at Graceland to the irreverent Dead Elvis Ball. The former Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April 1968 also draws large crowds. Now part of the National Civil Rights Museum, the motel on the southern end of downtown has been preserved so that it appears similar to the way it did on the day that King died. This sort of "necro-tourism" certainly is not unique to Memphis, but the city with the Pyramid does seem to attract an unusually large share of the trade.

14 The Pyramid also has been exploited for its mystical associations. Indeed, the project's original developers at one time planned to include an elaborate thrill ride called "The Netherworld" that would plunge riders down the side of the structure into a dark, subterranean enclosure (Graham). With creditors closing in as the opening date for the arena loomed, plans for the ride were scrapped and the man who envisioned it fired. Interest in the Pyramid's occult aspects did not end there, however. Others involved in planning the arena had a more personal interest in the cult of the dead, and controversy erupted when a collection of crystal skulls were uncovered in the structure's upper level. The "cult of the dead" took on a completely new level of meaning when the Grateful Dead performed at the Pyramid in 1995. Laura Sullivan was in the crowd for the performance, and the stories she tells about it—both deeply personal and critically informed—convey a unique sense of connection that she no doubt shares with thousands of others who were there.

15 Where "Thinking about the Pyramid" and its place in Memphis will lead us and others who decide to join us is still unknown. I am full of ideas, from the civically earnest to the painfully silly, and the 3-D model housed on my laptop continues to tempt me with new possible scenarios. One fantasy is to convert the Pyramid into a celebrity nekuomanteion, or temple of necromancy, which would employ modern cryogenic technologies in its attempt to raise the dead. While indubitably spectacular, the project would have the practical value of helping the city and county pay off the Pyramid's debt. Tourists would no doubt be willing to pay to see their favorite departed celebrities on ice, and wealthy wannabes would certainly pay the city a tidy sum to be frozen in the same crypt with their favorite stars. Although I concede that many Memphians may not appreciate me taking the plight of their Pyramid so lightly, at least I will have the pleasure of provoking some thought. And, as I believe I have made clear, thinking about the Pyramid is our goal.


[1] Patrick Epps created the petition and was its first signatory on May 19. As of August 30, forty-four people had signed the petition. It can be found at «».

Works Cited

Cashiola, Mary. "Taking the Bait." Memphis Flyer online. 2 Aug. 2007.

Denney, Pamela. "Monumental Battle: Answers to the Confederate Parks Controversy Aren't Inscribed in Black and White." Memphis Flyer online. 15 Aug. 2005. «».

Graham, Louis. "Pyramid Dreams: Pyramid Schemes." Part 2. The Commercial Appeal. 18 Oct. 1992. Rpt. In Gathering at the River: The Library. 20 Aug. 2007.

Laffey, Michael. Assignment for Art 396, Centenary College of Louisiana. Spring 2007. "Memphis Man Fights to Kill the Deal to Bring Bass Pro to Pyramid." 31 May 2007. «».

"Pyramid Dreams." Editorial. Memphis Flyer online. 15 Aug. 2007. «».

Ulmer, Gregory. "Abject Monumentality." The Abject, America. New York: Lusitania, 1993. 9-15.