A couple of weeks ago, the NZ Herald published an article revealing five concepts for a World War 1 Centenary Memorial. Along with everyone else, this was the first I had heard that one was being proposed. According to the article, however, this project has been in development for three years and the goal is to complete the memorial by November 2018. Councillor Mike Lee, who chairs the Memorial Working Party stated “the proposed centenary memorial is to honour not just the fallen and those soldiers who did not return, but also their families and all those generations of Aucklanders personally affected by the consequences of the Great War – and all wars”. To me, it feels a little like ‘and all wars’ is a bit of an afterthought. Should the built memorial become known as the WW1 Memorial, then it does beg the question – shouldn’t WW2 also have its own memorial – indeed, any other conflict in which significant numbers of New Zealanders fought? I digress.
Memorials are dear to my heart. They should be (and often are) special places. They serve as a testament to an event and lives lost; often acting as a repository for grief and facilitating the process of individual and collective healing. In the last year or so, I have designed and submitted my own designs in two open competitions – one for a WW1 Memorial in Washington, DC. The other here in New Zealand for the Canterbury Earthquake Memorial where I achieved a modicum of success being one of 6 shortlisted participants; albeit not the eventual winner.
Last week I paid a visit to the Auckland War Memorial Museum. First stop was the World War 1 Sanctuary and World War 2 Hall of Memories, both on the top floor. Like so many others, I too have relatives who fought in both wars. My grandfather on my mother’s side enlisted in both WW1 and WW2, lying about his age on both occasions. He was one of the lucky ones, returning relatively unscathed from both wars. Unfortunately three of his brothers were not so fortunate. It was a poignant moment for me to see each of their names engraved on the Roll of Honour. There is a sense of gravitas and one cannot fail to be moved by the panels of names. The simplicity speaks volumes.
Second stop was the Atrium on the ground floor to view the five concepts on display for the proposed $3 million memorial. Despite being present for more than an hour, I noted a general lack of interest despite high numbers of visitors passing through the Atrium en route to the Museum. Auckland Council can only hope that the concepts garner a little more interest online. However, I have my doubts. For those who have shown an interest, it would appear that none of the concepts are particularly favoured. Indeed, almost all commentators both online and in print have stated they would prefer to see the proposed site of the memorial remain exactly as it is. Given this state of affairs, one could argue that (somewhat typically) Council didn’t do their homework. Before presenting a memorial on this site as a fait accompli, perhaps they could have spent some time in the first instance gauging the public’s appetite for a memorial in general, in turn followed by feedback on what form it might take as well as a suitable site.
Having regard to the five concepts chosen, I’m not particularly ‘sold’ on any of them. ‘Awful’ rather uncharitably springs to mind when describing two of them. Subtlety sure wasn’t a strong point for the designers of ‘Te Waka Wairua’ and ‘Korowai’ (pictured below). I could go on, but perhaps it would be kinder to adhere to that old adage, ‘the lest said, the better’. Although I can find little of merit in these two concepts, I am sure they will have their fair share of proponents. Suffice to say, and this is entirely my own opinion, for me they lack cognizance of what landscape architects call ‘genius loci’ – in other words ‘the spirit of the place’. It’s as though the designers didn’t even set foot on the site. To my mind, had they done so, they couldn’t possibly have thought either of these proposals were sympathetic or respectful of the existing open green space and the stately museum building, let alone fulfilling what little I know of the brief. I find myself agreeing with Herald columnist, Brian Rudman, when he states the designs “attempt to create something that instead of complementing the existing museum building, compete with it, hollering ‘look at me’.”
The other three concepts (Te Takuahi, Landscape of Memory – Karangatia Ra and On Home Ground pictured below) are eminently preferable. Although I like certain aspects of each of these designs, none in particular really stand out. I can’t help thinking where are the poetic gestures – the “contemplative stimulus to reflection” about the effects of conflict on the wider community as set out in the brief. However, all three concepts do display a subtlety sadly lacking in the aforementioned designs. If I had to pick one, it would be Te Takuahi – The Hearth. This design, more so than the others, appears sympathetic to the existing site. Interventions are subtle yet significant. It also retains the open green space that Aucklanders seem so keen to keep. The Close Lawn with its subtle creases, although very appealing, doesn’t really cut it as a pathway and to my mind certainly does not constitute ‘a processional way’ in front of the museum and Cenotaph. Although not privy to the design brief, it is my understanding from articles I have read that a ‘processional way’ was a design requirement. The only one of my preferred concepts that looks and feels in any way ‘processional’ is On Home Ground and for this alone, minus the overt gimmickry, would be my second choice.
I must also confess to having reservations about the circular space at the base of the hill of Te Takuahi as well as the gathering space in Landscape of Memory – in particular the paved areas and seating. It all feels a tad generic to me – what I call the ‘Peter Walker effect’ where similar design interventions crop up in cities all around the world. They lack a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’, for lack of a better description. I do, however, appreciate how the sloping terraced crescent presents when viewed from the eastern side of Cenotaph Road; albeit the earthworks for these could be problematic. As Brian Rudman pointed out in his article, these concepts may well fall foul of district plan protections as well as the 1915 Act which forbids hacking into volcanic tuff rings in public reserves such as this.
From articles (including an editorial) published in the New Zealand Herald, it would appear that along with the general public, those overseeing the centennial project are also disappointed by the designs on offer. Field of Remembrance Trust Chairman, David McGregor, has said that he was disappointed at the extent to which the concepts deviate from the given design brief. He states “I think they all have their individual merit and they’re clearly very professionally presented and that sort of thing. My response to it, however, is that none of them represent the brief. The brief for us has always been for this more passive and silent statement, whereas the concepts all involve a degree of modification that I don’t think reflects that any more.” Auckland City Councillor Mike Lee, who chairs the World War One Centenary Memorial Working Party, voiced “some surprise” at the emphasis on Maori concepts in all the proposals and further states that it “wasn’t always clear how the entrants were meeting the design brief requirements which are for a memorial on behalf of the whole community”. With regard to placing emphasis on Maori cultural themes, I have nothing against cultural references (metaphorical or otherwise) informing a design. So long as the design interventions are not too literal, they tend not to be exclusive of others. However, it is a fine line between inclusion and exclusion, and it might be fair to say that some (if not all) of these proposals may have overstepped the mark for many.
In summary, I can’t help wondering why, after an initial period of public consultation, this wasn’t an open competition. Given that the museum building itself was the result of a worldwide competition in 1921, it makes perfect sense that this too, should have been an open competition. I find it hard to fathom why it wasn’t. It would have also been a great deal fairer. When interviewed, Malcolm Reading, a UK-based independent organiser of architectural competitions stated “I would say that competitions are, in general, more meritocratic. The process itself, run properly, allows talent to rise to the top and a level of public debate and engagement that would not be possible with a direct commission.” Although Reading is referring to all competitions (open or otherwise), I am of the opinion that an open competition raises the bar further. Had this been an open competition, I am sure there would have been numerous proposals submitted, not only from well established practices, but also from those in the early stages of their careers keen to make a name for themselves. Who knows, there may even be another ‘Maya Lin’ (the designer of the iconic Vietnam Veterans Memorial) lurking amongst us. Indeed, it could be said that some of the firms behind these five concepts were able to build, or at the very least enhance, their reputations through the design competition process.
Although not privy to financial information, I suspect a significant amount of money was paid to each of the chosen five teams. It stands to reason then, that in terms of both garnering lots of ideas, as well as simple economics, it would have been far better if an open competition had been held instead. A first stage competition is usually done without financial recompense to designers. Indeed, an entry fee is often a prerequisite to submitting a design – as in the case of a recent open competition for a WW1 memorial to be sited in Pershing Park, Washington DC. Charging an entry fee ensures a revenue stream. If open to professionals and non-professionals alike, both nationally and internationally, it would not be unreasonable to expect to receive upwards of 300 submissions. That’s 300 different ideas for little financial outlay with the upshot being a wide range of ideas from different viewpoints for a jury panel to consider. Indeed, this has been a wasted opportunity.
Click here to see additional boards for each concept and to read the design statements.
Click here to read a great article on how the Auckland War Memorial Museum came to pass.
Addendum: Last night I played tour guide to a carload of visiting Aussie relatives on a jaunt through the Domain and around the Auckland War Musuem. The lit up building looked magnificent. Although I initially felt the chosen site would be suitable for a memorial, I now have my doubts. The existing green open park space is the perfect setting for the museum, Cenotaph and Court of Honour and arguably, needs no further embellishment. As some commentators have already stated, all of the concepts to a greater or lesser degree will detract from the building and surrounds. Although I quite like some of the more figurative interventions, for example the glimmering lights “like tears shed for the brave people who have passed on before us and become stars” (Landscape of Memory), I can’t help feeling this lighting will only serve to detract, or at the very least compete with the lit museum building at night.
The young dead soldiers do not speak.
Nevertheless, they are heard in the still houses: who has not heard them?
They have a silence that speaks for them at night and when the clock counts.
They say, We were young. We have died. Remember us.
They say, We have done what we could but until it is finished it is not done.
They say, We have given our lives but until it is finished no one can know what our lives gave.
They say, Our deaths are not ours: they are yours: they will mean what you make them.
They say, Whether our lives and our deaths were for peace and a new hope or for nothing we cannot say: it is you who must say this.
They say, We leave you our deaths: give them their meaning: give them an end to the war and a true peace: give them a victory that ends the war and a peace afterwards: give them their meaning.
We were young, they say. We have died; remember us.
The Yound Dead Soldiers by Archibald MacLeish