Architectures of the pain | Íñigo García Odiaga

Serre Road Cemetery, Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944)
Serre Road Cemetery, Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944)

The end of the first world war in 1918, gave step to a prosperous period of political changes and social revolutions. All these changes had his reflection in the art and in the architecture, and it would be impossible to give a moderately logical explanation of the Russian forefronts, the constructivism or the international style, without the historical context arisen after the Great War. But if in something the great European contest stood out, it was in the human tragedy that generated the warlike contest, up to being considered to be the most deadly fifth conflict of the history of the humanity.

To repair the sequels of the warlike conflict there was undoubtedly a great task of reconstruction, but also the architecture would be necessary to attend to the needs of the recollection, of the memory or of the identity. Definitively, the needs of the soul. As he said Óscar Tusquets:

“To do architecture for the dead men, or better, for the alive ones who do not want to forget his dead men, it has been always very grateful”.

In these cases, the tension of the project is debated between two questions. The immense symbolic load, it fights between the simple of his concrete function, and the complication of bringing to the project the transcendental and metaphysical thing. There is from this one duality, from which the funeral architecture has constructed big monuments to everything long of the history of the humanity.

When the British government was watching already, the victory in the war, it selected an equipment of architects to form the Commonwealth War Serious Commission, whose mission would be to design the monuments that they were commemorating to the deceased during the conflict. Three of the architects most distinguished from the epoch,  Sir Herbert BakerSir Reginald Blomfield, and Sir Edwin Lutyens happened to form a part of this department. Lutyens had taken charge designing previously the symbols of the colonial power of the British empire, so it knew perfectly the symbolic and commemorative anxiety of this order. One entrusted them to exhaust with his projects, honoring the deceased in the battles of the war, but also of guarding in these spaces the collective memory of the horror of the war.

They are more than hundred the cemeteries and monuments that Lutyens and his companions designed throughout the years, and in spite of his different dimensions and emplacements they all guard a certain familiarity, as if his genetics was supporting an unitary code.

The first three projects constructed themselves in Le Treport, Forceville and Louvencourt. Of them, raised in Forceville it turned out to be the most successful. The architects created a cemetery walled with uniform tablets in a garden. To commemorate all the creeds and none at the same time, Edwin Lutyens resorted to the geometries of the classic Greek structures, which with so many clarity he had learned in his studies on the Parthenon of Athens. Thus it solved with this unitary and classic language the whole catalogue of templetes, cenotaphs, graderíos, perrons, pinnacles, hermitages or fences that the cemeteries were needing.

But the most exciting contribution of these projects, owes to the landscape painting. For the development of this part of the project the figure of Gertrude Jekyll was key, an influential woman dedicated to the horticulture, the gardening, as well as to the art and the writing. Jekyll emphasized for his adscription the Arts & Crafts Movement, thanks to which it knew the architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens, with whom it had created numerous gardens for villas in the field Englishwomen.

Serre Road Cemetery, Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944)
Serre Road Cemetery, Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944)

The individual tombs arrange, in the possible thing, in rows straight and marked by uniform tablets, the great majority of which are realized by white stone Portlan. Small formal differences, between the pieces they explain the Christian, Moslem, Jewish or atheistic condition of the deceased. This formal and geometric rigor of the rows and columns of tablets, it turns to the set in a sculpture on the green landscape. Idea supported by the absence of any form of paving between the rows, which he contributes to a minimalist simplicity, which still today hundred years later, it endows to the intervention of a round and contemporary language. Without these projects understood from the landscape point of view, in which the nature turns into one more material of the project, it would be difficult to understand the current Land Art or the work of contemporary artists as that of Richard Long or Walter de María.

If any brief is a space of meditation, those of the battlefields of the war of fourteen, they are particularly impressive. The immense fields planted of crossings, look like battalions on the hillsides. But the landscape of clay-pits, trenches and wire fences, which was getting up in these places during the contest, is now an artificial meadow.

A surrealistic tapestry where the grass has concealed, constructing a false naturalness, an area hurt by the human barbarism that these places, now bucolic they lived in his maximum expression. Maybe, this it is the legacy that the Great War contributed to the field of the architecture, of doing of the pain a material of construction.

Íñigo García Odiaga. Architect
San Sebastián. April 2014

It´s published in ZAZPIKA April 2014

Íñigo García Odiaga

Doctor Arquitecto y profesor asociado de Proyectos Arquitectónicos, ETSASS. Editor de NOMU. 1/5 del estudio de arquitectura VAUMM. Vivo en Donosti.

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