Memorial design – what works and what doesn’t

In a year in which we mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War and anniversaries of crucial events in the Second, we have been reminded of the sacrifice and suffering endured on an immense human scale during our periods of national conflict.

The Cenotaph at Whitehall, London

Source: mjhbower

The Cenotaph at Whitehall, London

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 London's Hyde Park Corner

Source: amandabhslater

The Royal Artillery Memorial at London’s Hyde Park Corner

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.

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  • Richard Xynk November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Graeme Mitcheson’s Naval Service Memorial is a conceptual and interesting design that uses both colour and light to evoke a sense of serenity and calmness. But as Abraham Lincoln said, “You can please some of the people some of the time all of the people some of the time some of the people all of the time but you can never please all of the people all of the time.” I’m not convinced that only “highly intelligent designers” can instil sensitivity and subtlety into their work. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and what you find beautiful or artistic may not work for me and vice-versa.

  • Paul Quinn November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    To declare an interest, I am the General Secretary of the Royal Naval Association, who commissioned and dedicated the Naval Service Memorial last Sunday.

    There are many points in this article that the author has completely right, context, the brief and a clear vision. I can only imagine that the author has not seen the memorial and has relied only on the patchy glimpse on the BBC clip. The RNA had an open design competition with 22 designs submitted from amateur and professional artists. We also had some guidance from the National Memorial Arboretum that they were hoping for more adventurous memorial designs.

    The selection group which consisted of serving officers, warrant officers and veterans shortlisted to 2 designers, Graeme Mitcheson and a nationally known sculptor. Graeme’s design was unanimously approved by our national council against a more traditional figurative proposal. The design instruction was ‘at the going down of the sun we will remember them. The author makes no mention of the stone figure, head bowed in respect. The glass sails are the colours of the 5 oceans and the sails cast a shadow of warship onto the white grant pavement. The figure looks onto the shadow ship. Since the memorial is for those who have served, serve today and will serve tomorrow, it is deliberately ambiguous as to time and gender.

    It has been extremely well received, but people’s initial reaction is mixed. The design repays careful thought since it does not reveal its depths on first glance. We have one very traditional Admiral completely changed his mind

    This is the only design that has had a unanimous approval by the National Memorial Arboretum Design Committee.

    My advice is to visit the memorial, spend some time with it and not rush to a hasty opinion. It will not be for everybody, but as the First Sea Lord said ‘This is a cutting edge memorial for a cutting edge Navy’.

    This is not to argue against the author’s views on other national memorials. However f the function of a memorial design is to provoke thought about the sacrifice made on our behalf by others, then this discussion is surely evidence that the Naval Service Memorial is, to some extent, doing that job.

    For the record the vast majority of opinion is that this is a very beautiful and thought provoking design – and people are interacting with it in all sorts of unexpected ways. From most of the main area of the Arboretum you can see a flash of Navy Blue – directing the eye towards the Naval Area, just what we hoped.

    I would be delighted to enter a discussion about the design review, decision and fabrication processes.

  • alan herron November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I appreciate completely that I have not seen the memorial in the flesh and therefore have not seen the full picture. Although I was aware of the shadow effect. My view is completely a personal opinion and after my initial reaction got me thinking about memorial design in a wider context.
    I will certainly make the effort to visit the site and to witness the context and the shadow view.
    I have no doubt that this memorial does have its supporters, it’s just that I am not one of them.
    Thank you for your comments. I appreciate the work that the Royal Naval Association does and hope that the memorial continues in its role as a focus for remembrance and reflection.

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