Thursday, 3 February 2011

Southampton Cenotaph: restoration or reworking

As absurd or fitting as this may sound, I first heard of the work being undertaken on the Southampton Cenotaph by a good friend and local whilst sitting in the berth of a barge moored on the River Orwell. It was a Christmas gathering of a few chums with a common interest in The Great War. These chaps are wonderful friends and our discussions often end up in an opinionated exchange regarding all aspects of remembrance. On this particular occasion my friend was incensed by the decision of Southampton City Council to erect glass panels rather than restore the original Portland stone monument.

As with a number of  other municipal memorials Southampton Cenotaph was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens. Designed in 1919 it was unveiled on 6th November 1920 in memorial to the 1800 inhabitants of Southampton who had given their lives during The Great War. Lutyens later used a refined version of this design to achieve the iconic Whitehall Cenotaph.

The passage of time, position and environmental change of the last ninety years have taken their toll on the names engraved into the stone, so much so that there is a fear that they could fade completely. However, the cost to re-engrave the names far outstripped the budget available. As such, another solution was required and so, with this in mind, Southampton City Council took the decision to save the names over the continued relevance of the memorial. This was not a conservation based decision but a financial one. The monument is not in any structural danger, but its reason d'etre, the carrying of this weight of names, was not a financially viable option.

A public art project was established between the City Council, Southampton and Fareham Chamber of Commerce and The Royal British Legion.  It does not appear that the reworking went out to open competition, instead, in 2010 the project steering group commissioned the glass artist, Martin Donlin to produce a design concept and a subsequent detailed design for public exhibition and planning approvals. 

Donlin's Concept for Southampton Cenotaph - Picture from Southern Daily Echo
Following a brief conversation with Patrick Baty (@patrickbaty) on twitter I began to consider the wider implications of this decision to rework rather than restore. What follows are my thoughts thus far.

I am not opposed to a reworking, per se. When there are financial constraints it is better to save the reason rather than the response. That being said, I would sooner save both. With the backdrop of a tight budget, in the case of Southampton Cenotaph this was not possible. However, I do have concerns with the response to the problem.

Upon first being told I had imagined that the glass panels would be attached to the monument, the shadows of the glass-etched names falling on to the stone created to hold them. I imagined a synthesis of stone and glass, of two worlds, both recognising the sacrifice, brought together in remembrance. What I saw was four sheets of glass, precariously placed at a distance from the original memorial.

In Donlin's concept the monument stands redundant, its very purpose openly stripped by the four panels. I am sure it is not the intention of the glasswork to reduce the significance of the memorial, but it does. On a purely practical note, Southampton Cenotaph was brought to media attention in October 2010 when it was urinated upon by a student on an organised night out. It is purely supposition, but consider the likely outcome of four, free-standing sheet glass panels. In blunt terms, more cost is the answer. This is purely hypothetical but should have been a consideration within the design brief.

Lutyens, as many readers will know, remains one of the greatest architects that Great Britain has produced. This monument is, in effect, a three-dimensional sketch book for his greatest creation, the essay in enthasis that is The Cenotaph. To remove the relevance from this monument does a great disservice to the memorial, the architect and, above all, the men and women it represents.

Ultimately, it is more important that the names are saved, but surely in the case of such an important monument the solution should maintain the relevance of the original response and strive to keep it central to the act of remembrance, not merely a footnote to modern, budget-shaped piece of public art.

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