Architecture September 2015
World War 1 Memorial Washington DC
“Try Again, Fail Again, Fail better.” Samuel Beckett
This was the submission narrative submitted along with the competition entry.
The scheme strips back Pershing Park to the bone, a clearing among the trees. The berms and undergrowth are cut back to provide maximum visibility and access from all sides. At the centre is a new fractured “ground” consisting of granite blocks with tomb like proportions at different elevations. On this “ground” are 12 marble statues of infantry marching towards the “front” where tall oxidised steel sculpted “trees” represent the loss of nature and destruction. At the end of this vista is the old “court” which is to be re-purposed as a reconciliations space.
And when peace comes to Flanders,
Because it comes too late,
He’ll still lie the, and listen
To the Otterburn in spate –
Wilfred Gibson – Otterburn
General Pershing’s statue has been relocated opposite its current position to face the “front” alongside his flanking men. While Pershing’s statue is 2 x life size the soldiers are 1.5 x life size. Completing the composition is the chronology of the war in bronze. Opposite the timeline is a series of illuminated beacons that display the poetry of the WWI – a reminder of the realities of war. The space around the new fractured “ground” is to be made level and accessible to all. It is expected that seating would be provided at the periphery looking inward to the statues. Lighting is to be provided in the beacons, along the edges and in the joints between the granite of the new “ground” platform, in the vertical markers of the timeline and around the court and the Pershing statue
Dark clouds are smouldering into red
While down the craters morning burns.
The dying soldier shifts his head
To watch the glory that returns;
He lifts his fingers toward the skies
Where holy brightness breaks in flame;
Radiance reflected in his eyes,
And on his lips a whispered name.
Siegfried Sassoon – How to Die
The main design consisted of
- Poetic Beacons – Poetry of the First World War
- The fractured ground – a staggered plate of granite to represent both the destruction of the ground, the mechanisation of war (tomb like proportions)
- The Marble Statues of the Soldiers at the front (the sleepwalkers)
- The “trees” – oxidised steel poles that represent the destruction of nature, echoing iconic images from the Somme and Ypres.
- General Pershing’s statue relocated to face the “front” towards the East separated from his men (flanking) in attack towards the end (the old court)
- The chronology of major events of the war cast in bronze with vertical markers
- The Court of resolution- armistice, the old memorial refurbished and re-purposed
Who died on the wires, and hung there, one of two –
Who for his hours of life had chattered through
Infinite lovely chatter of Bucks accent,
Yet face unbroken wires; stepped over, and went,
A noble fool, faithful to his stripes – and ended.
Ivor Gurney – The Silent One
Having read the brief in some detail and thinking on the epoch changing nature of the war the design was a sparse and poetic reflection on mechanisation, death, pain and memory. A sparse entry by the standards of the others it was invisible among the bombastic statements of many and it had no gimmicks. It provided space for reflection and brought to the fore the war poetry that has not been a major feature of other memorials.
What in our lives is burnt
In the fire of this?
The heart’s dear granary?
How much we shall miss?
Three lives hath one life –
Iron, honey, gold.
The gold, the honey gone –
Left is the hard and cold.
Iron are the loves
Molten right through our youth.
A burnt space through ripe fields,
A fair mouth’s broken tooth.
Isaac Rosenberg – August 1914
The opportunity to engage in open competition is of benefit to the work in the practice. The realisation that it will not progress further is of course a disappointment. Reflecting on this failure I am strengthened by Beckett’s mantra; “try again, fail again, fail better”.
njb – NJBA A+U