We have seen wreathes laid and old combatants salute fallen comrades in front of memorials and monuments up and down the land. It has been a solemn and salutory reminder of what happens when politics breaks down. These memorials are the focus for our collective acts of remembrance and have been highly visible over the last few months in the press and on screen.
With this in mind, my initial reaction on seeing the Naval Service Memorial recently unveiled at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, by sculptor Graeme Mitcheson, was one of incredulity. It seemed to me to look like a stack of boards outside a Cornish surf shack, or, worse still, an exhibition stand for a plastics manufacturer. Neither of these suggest grief or respect. How can it have been so spectacularly wide of the mark?
BBC report of the Naval Service Memorial unveiling
I have no doubt that the design process is especially complicated on this type of project, and fraught with all kinds of unusual and unforeseen issues, not least, keeping all of the various stakeholders happy. We as a profession, usually pride ourselves in our abilities to navigate these complex landscapes and take these challenges as par for the course.
The skill of the designer is to edit and extract from the brief and from the cacophony of voices in his ear what is really important. What is the story? The designer’s role is to provide clarity and gravitas to this. To provide simplicity and a single voice.
Another unique challenge for the memorial designer is context. Where is the memorial going to be situated? How does the designer make it fit in, or not, as the case may be? Like most good design, it should interrupt the everyday and the commonplace and require us to react.
The Cenotaph in Whitehall, by Edwin Lutyens, looks to me to be the perfect example of this. Originally intended as a temporary structure in plaster and wood, this monolithic Portland stone edifice encapsulates British understatement. It is stripped of all literal elements. The scale, the proportions, the material ensure that it is a fitting iconic memorial. It is the centre of national grief every November and has a quiet but powerful simplicity and dignity.
The Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner, by Charles Jagger, relies on a more figurative interpretation, however this is steeped with symbolism, not least the Christ-like soldier under a shrouded cape gazing down at the traffic. Powerful and appropriate
The Animals in War Memorial on Park Lane by David Backhouse is a more recent addition. Though possibly not as successful, it is surely inspired by the aforementioned Royal Artillery Memorial in it’s use of symbolism and materials.
‘Spire of Names’ Bomber Command memorial for Lincolshire, by Walter Jack Studio
Another memorial recently in the news is the proposed Spire of Names Bomber Command monument in Lincoln. This modern steel spire structure, designed by Walter Jack, is set to dominate the Lincoln skyline, a highly relevant location. I salute the single-minded concept, but fear that the finished article may be too simple and industrial.
I would like to see more conceptual and interesting designers such as James Turrell and Thomas Heatherwick being commissioned for these types of project. They would bring a sensitivity and subtlety that only highly intelligent designers can.
James Turrell designs remarkable immersive experiences of colour and light, which have exquisite serenity and calmness. And, as we know, Thomas Heatherwick is a highly talented and intelligent designer who could leave a lasting legacy in this often overlooked area of design.
With designers of this calibre involved, we could be sure that our grief and remembrance is marked with appropriate reverence.
Alan Herron is founder of Alan Herron Stuff.