War memorials ensure that people remember and respect the sacrifice of those who died or fought. They are an important source of information for the young in understanding the sacrifices made by their forefathers.
Words: Revati Rajwade
Architecture has arisen and evolved from the primary requisite of shelter and from thereon it has accompanied man, faithfully treading along an arduous path of ever growing requirements.
The necessities ranged from housing to convocation centres and crematoriums to jails. Thus it can be said that architecture is mainly a result of human needs. However, to state paradoxically it is sometimes a result of human deeds.
A depiction of these terrible events came into society through the form of war memorials. They were thus born owing to man’s atrocities. However, these memorials are important because they link the past to the present and transport us to that era and enable us to envision that particular scenario.
They ensure that people remember and respect the sacrifice of those who died or fought. Memorials are an important source of information for the young in understanding the sacrifices made by their forefathers. They store the significant beliefs of society and prove to become a history book for the future.
War memorials refrain from featuring any of the actual components and processes that constitute a part of the real war. Adequate bombarding of the same already happens during the time of the war. The aftermath is so dreadful that it is essential to put those memories to rest.
Thus, memorials instead comprise elements that speak volumes about the loss of life, heroism, martyrdom and re-contextualise war through a range of symbols, forms and materials. All of these are usually unrelated to war but strongly depict certain ideas.
However, these humane values are relatively new notions. If one happens to curiously peep into human history, it can be gathered that earlier war memorials were erected only to commemorate great victories. In Napoleon’s day, the dead were shovelled together in unmarked graves. Some monuments of this period are an epitome of such human insensitivity and contain no names or references of the slain souls.
However, with the dawn of a new era, human dynamics underwent a massive change and now in modern times the main intent of war memorials is not to glorify war, but to honour those who have died.
The roots of this transformation lie mainly in the colossal destruction caused to as well as by mankind during the First World War. This war saw such a massive amount of annihilation to life and damage to habitats that its memories forever remain etched in blood in the historical guide books.
Post War, human emotions ran so deep and were so volatile that an immediate response to it became evidently essential. The intense emotions needed a form of expression and an architectural response seemed to be the obvious answer to give vent to the anguish of people.
In this period, architects such as Edwin Lutyens and Reginald Blomfield and sculptors like William Reid Dick, Sir George Frampton and Albert Toft came to be widely renowned since they were commissioned to design various memorials.
Edwin Lutyens built a wide range of memorials and hence he had become a key figure in determining how the dead would be commemorated. His designs have been admired for the universality of their message. Many of the memorials built in this era are pure architectural forms which represent symbols of grief and the simple inscriptions convey the deeply rooted sorrow.
These monuments show the power of classical architecture and how effectively it can express connotation and dignity. Thus, they have been documented over the years by several people.
Memorials are a blend of sentiments which form the premise of its architectural elements and the manifestation of this is evident through several structures. They are designed to pay homage and evoke a certain range of powerful emotions.
The physical monument can be of various types like a cenotaph, plaque or utilitarian structures such as a bus shelter or hospital. The type largely depends on the thought process of the concerned parties and is largely influenced by public opinion and sentiments.
These poignant memorials vary in design and scale: from names etched on stones to life size statues, pavilions to arches where each tells its own solemn story.
One such example is the memorial at Switzerland which is quite unique since it has been carved into a cliff in Lucerne. It is a wounded lion that lays dying in a massively carved out shape of a boar. The Loewendenkmal or Lion’s Memorial commemorates the Swiss mercenaries killed during an 18th century battle.
This distinctive depiction has no relation to the actual battle but it holds a strong presence in the viewer’s mind and impresses upon it the incidence of the fight.
In stark contrast is the PostanaWarsawskiego in Warsaw, Poland which is a battle scene re-enactment through a statue. It commemorates a World War II scene when thousands of Polish soldiers emerged from hiding and tried to push out the Nazis in 1944 but were brutally suppressed.
This memorial covers a half-city block, with the massive teal towers in the background naming the military personnel involved. The recreation of the scene is truly moving.
Another well designed memorial is the National Monument at Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. The monument is an amalgamation of various elements such as the sculpture, cenotaph, central pavilion, self-reflecting pool and gardens which sprawl across an area of 12 acres.
The paved site is a linear piece of land where the cenotaph lies right after the entrance. The area leads one to the Central Pavilion which represents an interesting part of the Tugu Negara (National Monument).
It boasts of a crescent shaped pavilion with a flat roof topped with three golden domes with pointed bronze spires. The floor of the pavilion is made of marble which gives a soothing feeling. On the ceiling of the Central Pavilion are emblems of the many regiments that served in Malaya during World War II and the Malayan Emergency.
The pavilion leads the visitor to the self-reflecting pool that lies over an expanse of 90 m by 32 m with high fountains in front of the statue and low ones behind it. The dash of the blue pool contains water lilies of pewter.
The penultimate area of this memorial houses the elevated bronze statue which becomes the focal point. It is a sculpture that commemorates those who died in Malaysia’s struggle for freedom. At 50 feet, it is the world’s tallest bronze free standing sculpture grouping. The sculpture depicts a group of seven soldiers with five of the figures representing the victorious allied forces while the other two that lie on the ground represent the defeated communist forces.
Each of the bronze figures symbolises leadership, suffering, unity, vigilance, strength, courage and sacrifice. Felix de Weldon, of Marine Corps War Memorial, USA fame has designed the sculpture. The monument is held in such high regard that despite being damaged due to a terrorist attack in 1975, it has been restored and security has been added. Every day at dawn, a soldier raises the national flag and lowers it at dusk.
A shining example of a war memorial that is closer home is the India Gate. It is strategically located at the Rajpath and is a memorial to 82,000 soldiers of the undivided Indian Army who died in the First World War and the Third Anglo-Afghan War.
Their names have been inscribed on the gate. This All-India War Memorial in New Delhi was designed by Edwin Lutyens, the leading designer of war memorials. He designed the highly regarded Cenotaph, in London, in 1919, the first national war memorial erected after World War I.
As many of his other memorials, the India Gate is secular since it does not bear any resemblance to any religious structures or ornamentation. The India Gate is a massive edifice with a span of 30 feet and a towering height of 126 feet. It stands on a low base of red Bharatpur stone and rises in stages to a huge moulding.
Several other such memorials dot the country. Says Mangala Kale, a tourist from Mumbai who visited a lesser known memorial at Dharmashala, Himachal Pradesh: “A visit to this memorial kindles a sense of patriotism and respect for the brave soldiers who died in several peacekeeping missions such as Operation Blue Star. The memorial lay in a picturesque natural setting where the subtle design conveys in depth meaning of the befallen calamity. The sight of the outline of India made out of stone on the ground gives a surreal feel to the atmosphere.”
Thus, the design of a war memorial needs to comprise a thread of emotional connect with the event in order to arouse the solemn feelings and appeal to a wide range of people. Owing to the complexities surrounding the nature of the brief involved, war memorials remain one of the most challenging architectural expressions where emotions have to be recorded, decoded and then transformed into physical forms or abstract spaces.
For generations to come, this category of architecture will continue to exist unless man decides to change his ways and unmistakably it would be a day of rejoice if this indeed happens and this division of architecture ceases to exist.