Saturday, 11 July 2009

The 7 July Memorial

Peter Beaumont's new book The Secret Life of War features a glimpse inside the bedroom of a Palestinian teenager. On the wall are photographs of suicide bombers and ... Princess Diana.

Surreal! Not really. This is a juxtaposition that makes perfect sense. The teenage bedroom is the vector that connects Princess Diana with suicide bombers. There's the misplaced fascination with the Cobain glamour of untimely death, of course. There's also the puerile appeal of fairytale happy endings, be they marrying Prince Charming or getting to know 72 virgins. "Happy ever after" and self-annihilation are both forms of an unwillingness to project oneself into the future. They're equally at home in the native territory of nihilist self-importance and melodrama, the teen bedroom.

And now they're equally at home in Hyde Park. Kathryn Gustafson's Diana Memorial Fountain has been joined in the park by Carmody Groarke's 7 July Memorial, commemorating the 52 victims of the 2005 bombings.

It feels rather uncomfortable to criticise a structure like this, as it is now the appointed and inviolable symbol of the suffering of London and the bereaved families in the wake of the bombings. Obviously no disrespect is intended. Criticism is made even harder by the memorial's overwhelming politesse, its quintessence of the sort of minimalism that is now pervasive in memorial design, as discussed by Kieran Long in this essay in Icon 044.

My arguments here aren't primarily aesthetic, or intended as criticisms of the designers, who have been working to an exceptionally sensitive brief, although there are some aesthetic points that I'll come to at the end. Rather, I'm concerned with the location and purpose of the memorial. I'm also, as is always the case on this blog, speaking for myself, not for my employer.

Alongside the Diana fountain, it's clear that Hyde Park is now seen as a suitable location for this sort of large-scale public memorial. This is unfortunate, and represents the chipping-away of a public place of repose. The park has nothing to do with any of the bombing locations, or there common feature, public transport. Andy Groarke justified this choice to me by saying that it was unwise to prioritise one location over another - which is a reasonable response, though I'll return to that argument later. There's also the question of what the memorial has done to part of the park. There are benches as part of the landscaped area memorial, but they are a distance away from the columns. As Groarke said when I interviewed him:

The families wanted four benches, but we didn't want to make that part of the memorial for a few reasons - we didn't want to make the memorial solely as an amenity to the park, its remit isn't to provide a place of comfort, it's to communicate a message, a message in memoriam, so we wanted to put the benches slightly off it and have the strength of the memorial as a singular and collective thing. So the benches are placed aside, so a visitor to the memorial can contemplate quietly, inconspicuously, at a little bit of distance.

The designers have gone to pains to ensure that the memorial is hardwired into the fabric of the park, and simultaneously is not a place of rest. Another part of the park has been turned into a modulated emotional terrain. In contrast, the memorial to the 191 victims of the 2004 Madrid train bombings, an underground chamber linked to but separate from Atocha station, is a discrete (and discreet) place of contemplation.

Then there's the scale. "It shouldn't be put on a plinth, this memorial," says Groarke, drawing attention to the composition's intended modesty and its integration into the "ambient parkscape". Nevertheless the location, at the head of two paths, is undeniably Grand Manner, and the individual columns are 3.5m tall, twice the height of a man. Plinth or no plinth, the scale is monumental.

Why does this matter? Beyond my discomfort with (another) part of the park being turned into a funerary complex, the grander and more prominent we make the memorial, the more importance we accord to the attacks. They were a nightmarish experience, to be sure, and that memory is but a fraction of what the victims and their families suffered. But we have to remember the teenager's bedroom, the terror-fancier's love for melodrama and hollow spectacle. Grandiosity is not a sensible response to that.

Finally, aesthetics. On Twitter, architect Sam Jacob hit out at its "inappropriate, empty, good taste". It is certainly minimal, preferring to leave a blank in place of a more articulate message, a politically tactful move that is also the plague of modern memorials (cf Long, above), allowing visitors to fill in their own thoughts. Silence is not a bad thing in itself, but when it's on a large scale it is open to accusations of emptiness. Nevertheless, if monumental memorial there must be, I would prefer minimalism to the figurative kitsch of the atrocious and heartless Animals in War memorial, on nearby Park Lane, or the slightly less dire Women at War memorial on Whitehall. (The latter of which always reminds me of Dominic Wilcox's War Bowl, made of melted, mashed-together plastic soldiers.)

Its site might be an irreversibly poor choice, the scale might be off, but there are some redeeming features to the memorial. As I mentioned earlier, one of the reasons the location of the memorial is troublesome is that Hyde Park has nothing to do with the one thing that all the victims of the 7 July had in common - they were users of public transport. Public transport is London's greatest shared experience, which is surely why it was targeted in the first place. The memorial makes conscious reference to this in one way, with lettering designed by the superb Phil Baines based on the TfL font, Johnston.

There is another connection with transport that I do not believe the designers intended. The plain, unpolished steel columns resemble the utilitarian poles and supports that are everywhere at roadside and trackside, serving scores of functions.

These utility poles are already the basis of a genuine folk memorial culture - the bunches of flowers, and sometimes other artifacts such as soft toys, that appear after deaths on the road. What we can see in Hyde Park is a government half-heartedly "giving people what they want", and sacrificing public space to do so, but then failing to do the whole distance and instead trying to channel popular emotion into a narrow prescription of "good taste". Really, if the state wanted the 7 July memorial to be the focus of genuine popular emotion, let those who come to pay respects attach flowers and tributes to the stelae. Let cable ties, cellophane and cut flowers bloom.


Neural Gourmet said...
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Will said...
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Paul Mison said...

When I was there on Thursday evening, there were in fact flowers tied to two of the columns with purple ribbons.