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Lest we forget

By John Pegg
The way that we think of memorials has changed several times since the end of World War One. Now they are less about visceral memories and more about a secular coming together.

In recent years there has been an apparent acceleration in the creation of war memorials across the UK. Memorials to specific groups have been scattered across the parks of London and the National Memorial Arboretum has been developed, and now enlarged, to accommodate the appetite to provide new commemorations of both past and active conflicts. From a landscape architect’s point of view, it is useful to speculate on the reasons and motivations for this movement to create new landscapes and landscape-defining objects that are so clearly bound to an evolving national identity.

The generations for whom the events of the World Wars had a deep visceral impact have gone. Secondary generations who experienced the long, slow aftermath of the effects of a lost generation of uncles, fathers and grand fathers are now giving way to another generation for whom the void left in families and society by the losses of the war might form little more than a footnote in their family history. However, this distance does not appear to be diminishing the new-found engagement that is gaining momentum in commemorating the wartime casualties and losses of the conflict.

The protracted marking of the centenary of World War One has thrown into focus questions regarding the nature and character of the memory and myth of the war. The contemporary meaning of the events and commemorations must vary between the generations that experienced the events and those that have only known their fading aftermath. The nature and character of immediate post-war commemoration was dramatically contested, a social commentary that is apparently lost beneath the calm dignity of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission sites. At the time the herculean task of locating and burying all the dead was the obvious priority over the creation of a more abstract memorial at home. Lutyen’s temporary cenotaph in Whitehall became a sufficiently powerful national focus for it to be recast as a permanent national focus for commemoration and, as with other memorials, became a site at which the memory of the casualties was evoked to lend weight to social protest in the aftermath of both wars

The forces behind the movement to reinvigorate the commemoration of wartime casualties are varied. The specific memories of personal loss and the fragmentation of lives are receding to a comfortable distance, apparently merging a new collective narrative beneath a benign gloss of history. The apparent unity this fosters is further tempered by the changing values of society, specifically the rise of secularisation and the individual. Religious sanctity, communal habits and unification have been significantly eroded, leaving a void in communal identity. The commemoration of wartime losses may have developed to fulfil a need for new sacred sites and activities appropriate to a secular society seeking a communal identity in the face of the rush towards globalisation. War memorials have been co-opted as a form of sacred secular architecture.

We look back at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries that span the globe marking the scenes to British and Imperial loss with the calm, democratic order of the arts and crafts, as a defining twentieth century landscape. This is a landscape that co-opted the corporeal remains of servicemen and women to act in perpetuity as a physical memorial to the sacrifices made to defend ‘civilised’ values. Fabian Ware’s drive to create these commemorations in a form that expressed the unity of Empire and the dignity of equality were matched by Lutyens’ intent to avoid the imposition of a specifically Christian formality and Kipling’s emphatically secular literary contributions.

The CWGC eschewed the use of the symbolism, mottoes and figurative art that dominated the memorial palette recently inherited from the Victorians. The battles fought on moral and aesthetic grounds throughout the post-war period were vicious and bitter, not least on the issues of the repatriation, the adherence to military hierarchy and the deep-felt desire to fragment commemoration to the military unit, local area and down to the individual.

In the two years following the armistice, more than 5000 war memorials were raised in Britain as individuals, communities and military units all sought the speedy commemoration of the dead. However this response was not centrally controlled. Many grieving families opted out of commemorating their loved ones as a part of another’s interpretation of conflict. The scattered community war memorials that define Britain’s commemoration of the wars, remain small scale and incomplete.

Formal memorials such as Charles Sargeant Jaggers’ Hoylake War Memorial (1922) and the Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner (1925) invoke a populist modernism with robust heroic ‘realism’  which contrasts with the almost camp Beaux Arte Machine Gun Corps Memorial (1925) that is the neighbour of the latter. All these memorials drew contemporary criticism from traditionalist and modernist alike, but then the domestic war memorial building boom ended.

The long hiatus in the development of new war memorials through the latter half of the twentieth century was obviously due to the significant retrofit of most World War 1 Memorials to accommodate the casualties of World War 2 and then the thankful lack of conflict. However the millennial period saw the pace of World War specific commemoration pick up dramatically. This acceleration reflected parallel resurgences in memorialisation both domestically and internationally.

Internationally, the clear success of Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial (1982) in Washington DC demonstrated the acceptability of contemporary  memorials in civic spaces. Almost simultaneously the global Holocaust memorial building programme gave societies and designers licence to reflect on the horror and loss of the wars as a means of education and reinforcement of identity. Domestically, public expectation and subscription led to the September 11 Memorial Garden (2003) The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain (2004), National Police Memorial (2005) and the 7 July Memorial (2009) all earning space in London’s parks and squares.

The World Wars were also represented in this Millennial rush to memorialise with construction of the Canada Memorial(1994), Commonwealth Memorial Gates (2002), Australian War Memorial (2003), Animals in War Memorial (2004), the Battle of Britain Memorial (2005), Monument to the Women of World War II (2005), New Zealand War Memorial (2006) and most recently the Bomber Command Memorial (2012).

Further afield, in 2001 the creation of the National Memorial Arboretum (NMA) in Staffordshire was probably the single greatest contribution to the new generation of memorials. The site was conceived as a national focus for a range of civilian and military remembrance and has been a resounding success, currently drawing as many as 300,000 visitors a year and with ambitious expansion plans being guided by landscape architect FIRA.

The site is home to a broad spectrum of memorials, the most significant of which is the Armed Forces Memorial (2007) by Liam O’Connor. This lists, by name, each British Armed Forces casualty since 1945, to date something in the region of 15,000 names with scope for as many again. The form of the memorial, set on a 100m-diameter mound, is a direct consequence of the decision to site the arboretum within the flood plain of the River Trent.

The memorial sets a new twenty-first century standard for British commemoration of conflict, listing as it does all casualties by name in a single place detached from the site of conflict. At the same time, it marks a shift in focus from the symbolic societal memorial to the loss of individuals. As with O’Connor’s earlier Commonwealth Memorial Gates, the design vocabulary draws heavily on Lutyen’s architectural language and Ian Rank-Broadley’s heroic bronze figures reinstate the figurative art Lutyen’s would not accept. The reintroduction of military hierarchy through precedence of the services, ranks and titles marks a clear deviation from Ware’s founding principles of equality in death.

Somewhat by chance, our practice has stumbled headlong into the swirling debates about contemporary commemoration and finds its work the focus of the full range of contemporary sentiment regarding the commemoration of conflict casualties. As part of an architecture studio that we ran, we elected to focus on Dover as a case study of how intelligent development and adaptive reuse could be the catalyst for conservation of heritage assets that might be at risk and turn them from a community liability to an asset. The UK is peculiarly well placed in this field having as it does a surfeit of historic sites and both a large domestic ‘heritage consumer’ base and a large tourist base of visitors wanting access to, and engagement with, the authentic and specific heritage that litters the country. Our studio objective was to find interventions, both architectural and landscape, that could reverse the trend of decay that has defined the recent decades for many of Dover’s heritage features and recast the same sites as assets through limited intervention.

We took the opportunity presented by the studio to develop a proposal, taking the principle of commemorating all individual casualties as applied at the Armed Forces Memorial and extending that same level of commemoration back to include all British and Commonwealth casualties of the two World Wars. It was a big concept as we were attempting to list 1,700,000 names on a single memorial at a single site. This has to be seen in the context of the Armed Forces Memorial’s capacity of 30,000 and the Vietnam War Memorial’s completed roll call of 58,000. The story should have ended in 2006 with the concept consigned to the bottom drawer of great ideas destined for nowhere. There was no site, no budget, no client and no fees; however there was a kernel of sudden and unexpected local support.

We found local council officers became enthusiastic and urged us to present the scheme to a wider and wider audience. Key stakeholder buy in followed, and the Local Planning Authority and landowner began committing time and resources to the potential of the scheme. The core of all engagement at both public and stakeholder level has always been the emotional resonance of the subject matter but to that core supporters started adding the commercial, political and investment rationale that is required to lift a scheme off the drawing board and into construction.

The plans to date have been through several iterations as interest groups and site constraints pushed and pulled at the plans, but the conceptual integrity remains. The memorial comprises 12 white granite retaining walls that step down over a former barrack site above the White Cliffs on Dover’s Western Heights. Each of the walls represents one of the years of conflict from 1914–1945 on which the casualty names, as recorded by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, are inscribed.

The heritage benefit comes from the investment in the frayed historic fabric of the area. Both the North Entrance to the historic fortress complex and the remarkable Drop Redoubt will be drawn into the scheme, deriving investment, use, visitors and a significantly enhanced identity from the memorial’s presence. Less comfortably but equally necessarily the local business community has established that the local economy would derive annual indirect benefits from the memorial’s visitors of around £12.5 million.

It remains to be seen if the National War Memorial will become a reality. Potentially the Millennial rush to commemorate has left the country and Commonwealth with memorial fatigue but that is never evident when we consult on the scheme. Whether it is the need for a secular architecture that can be deemed sacred, a yearning for a personal connection with the individuals who fell in the wars or the creation of a new national foundation myth, there is clearly a latent demand for appropriate and personal commemoration of the wars to continue, unintentionally turning landscape architects into social entrepreneurs.

John Pegg is a founder of Craft Pegg landscape architects.

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Posted by Lionel Fanshawe, Director Terra Firma - July 14th, 2014
Its good to see the subject covered here John but a shame the net was not cast a little wider as we'd have been keen to share thoughts from our work with Falklands and Leonard Cheshire Memorials which resonate with a lot you say here. Currently underway with a memorial to Muslim Commonwealth troops who fell in the First World War which is very much about looking to the future. We will be telling that story shortly once underway.

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