To monolithic memories

Hugh Pearman wonders why monuments to victims of non-wartime atrocities don’t have the same thought put into them as those memorialising wartime acts

After wars, atrocities, and disasters, architects build memorials. These can become the most evocative buildings of their age.

Sir Edwin Lutyens gave us the Cenotaph in London’s Whitehall, and the poignant Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval. In Paris, the 1962 Memorial des Martyrs de la Déportation by Georges-Henri Pingusson is a highly-charged symbolic space that anticipates the work of Daniel Libeskind. From Washington to Hiroshima, memorials have the power to stop us in our tracks. Somehow, New York now has to make one.

Memorials must always be, to a greater or lesser extent, monuments to failure. Failure of negotiation. Failure of military strategy. Failure of intelligence. Even worse, they can be monuments to success: the success of battle plans that factor in huge loss of human life. Perhaps for this reason the Great War memorials have such enormous emotional pull. As with later Jewish examples, their designers had somehow to come to terms with the unthinkable.

The military expects, and always gets, its memorials. More difficult is the task of recording the sacrifice of civilians, even when civilians find themselves in the front line. There has never been a satisfactory memorial to those who died and suffered in the London Blitz. Though many have been mooted, they have all failed to capture the notion of innocent lives brutally lost. This is however made up for by Coventry. Its masterly Basil Spence cathedral became a national symbol of rebirth and reconciliation in the post-war years.

Buildings with other uses can therefore serve the purpose. Norman Foster’s American Air Museum at Duxford, for instance, is also a memorial to all those who died on the bombing and fighter missions of the air war. That maybe sets a useful precedent for non-religious memorial architecture, since – despite the example of Coventry – organised religion can hardly be said to have a good record when it comes to wars, persecution and conflict. This is why Christian iconography was downplayed in the monuments to the Great War: after the church-sanctioned slaughter, it was just not appropriate. Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin, and his Felix Nussbaum museum in Osnabruck, are other secular buildings that are ‘rooms against forgetting’ as he calls them.

Victims fare still worse when it comes to remembering non-wartime disasters. The small bronze plaque at London’s King’s Cross Station, brusquely recording the 31 people who died in the London Underground fire there, is pitifully inadequate. But at least it is sober and sombre.

Those that are spontaneously generated by the public are temporary, but have an extraordinary power. What I remember about the aftermath of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales was the sea of plastic-wrapped flowers covering a corner of Kensington Gardens. It was a giant version of those sad, cheap bunches of flowers you see tied to lamp posts where a car has fatally crashed, which made it appropriate for the circumstances. No official memorial could ever match that. Indeed, to judge by recent inconclusive efforts, we seem to have lost the knack of designing memorials altogether.

Individual acts of civilian heroism pass un-recorded except on exploitative TV awards programmes. Although here, someone once tried. If you go to the tiny open space known as Postman’s Park, just near the Museum of London, you will find an arcade of ceramic memorial plaques dedicated to heroic self-sacrifice. It was the work of the sculptor GF Watts, and later his widow. Nobody added to it, after her death. It was a good idea.

So, how to make a physical reminder of what happened at the World Trade Center? No one has yet thought of an appropriate way of memorialising mass killing by terrorist action. There was no battle, it was a civilian affair, and even the enemy was uncertain. So all the usual supporting elements needed to generate a memorial are missing, but the central disastrous act demands one.

The US authorities have put aside the last sections of the towers to remain upright in case it is needed to make a memorial later. That seems appropriate. But someone will eventually be needed to create the setting for this fragment that fully encompasses the nature of the tragedy. Once again, a means must be found to express the previously unimaginable. Lutyens could have done it. So, surely, can Libeskind.

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