Friday, 15 July 2011

TheTsunami Memorial

A short walk from Zumthor's 2011 Serpentine Pavilion is the new Tsunami Memorial, to be found in the grounds of the Natural History Museum and designed by Carmody Groarke.

Carmody Groarke are architects, but this is a a highly successful work of abstract sculpture - they were clearly not tempted by Adolf Loos's observation that memorials and tombstones offer the only opportunities for true, pure architecture untainted by the mundane requirements of a functional brief - though they probably still had a job persuading the QS and project manager of the necessity of transporting a single piece of granite weighing more than 100 tonnes to the site. 

The memorial strikes just the right notes of dignity and seriousness of purpose, its weight and permanence a poignant contrast with the fragility of many of the coastal settlements that were swept away by the wave.

The only criticism I would make is that the only way to get to it is by pushing one's way through the dinosaur-fancying hordes in the museum to the back door of the Darwin wing.  This is an unsatisfactory way to get to a public memorial to an event that happened on the other side of the world, and anyone intent on quiet contemplation for personal reasons might find it disturbing. There is a simple solution since the memorial can be seen from Queen's Gate at the side of the museum, down a path with an existing gate, as can be seen in the photo above - all that needs to be done is to open the gate to provide proper public access, which seems likely to have been the designers' original plan.  The problem is presumably supermarket-style access-control-freakery at the Museum - they should speak to their more relaxed colleagues at most of our other great collections in London who allow multiple access points to their sites. 

The memorial is as good as the same designers' 7/7 memorial in Hyde Park. Between them they provide a refreshing contrast to the ill-considered nature of some other recent memorials in London, such as the Animals in War memorial in Hyde Park, which is tacky and mawkish, and the Women at War memorial in Whitehall, which is OK by comparison, but strangely visually aggressive in its setting, distracting from the power of the Cenotaph.  More representational designs such as Charles Jagger's magnificent Royal Artillery memorial at Hyde Park Corner worked in an earlier age, but today seem much harder to achieve successfully; and a more abstract artistic approach, still unloved by much of the public in architecture and painting, seems to be accepted more readily in this field.

Quality control of this kind of enterprise is difficult because of the sensitivities involved, but it was precisely because of the poor quality of so many proposed memorials to the First World War that the Royal Fine Art Commission was set up in the 1920s.  It was still reviewing such projects up to its replacement by CABE in 1999.  CABE chose to concentrate on other matters and gave up this role - I think it is a role that is missed, and I seem to remember that there was an Act of Parliament that requires that such reviews for central London sculptures and memorials - was it repealed or is it forgotten?

These are not the most important projects in London but they have meaning and resonance that a new office building, whatever its 'visual impact', does not; they are worth the time and attention to get right.  If they would unlock that gate, the Tsunami memorial would be an exemplar.

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