6: Barbed wire crossings

Barbed wire on the front was primarily defensive, but it had to be porous to allow one’s own troops through for attack. Zig-zag gaps allowed men through after going over the top while remaining difficult to spot for enemy troops advancing from no-man’s land. In the late 1950s, zig-zag gaps between metal barriers proliferated across urban landscapes, to protect pedestrians from increasing traffic.

Barbed wire gapsBessborough Road, crossing
‘Gaps in entanglements’ from ‘Notes on Trench Warfare’ 1917; Bessborough Road, crossing, Pimlico

Designer’s intention: To provide safe crossing for pedestrians by slowing them between traffic lanes and getting them to pause for traffic.

Effect in practice: Pedestrians are corralled into metal pens, like cattle, and are held until they can traverse the no-man’s land of the traffic lanes.

Visual effect: Metal barriers become an accepted part of the visual landscape, as they were all along the front.

Phenomenological effect: The slow, directed movement across the roadway, where people are normally not allowed on foot, heightens an awareness of danger among pedestrians and replicates the movement, in mind as well as in physical terms, of soldiers picking their way through their own barbed wire and out into the dangers of no-man’s land.

Discussion: With these zig-zags, the memory trace of having to find a path through superficially impenetrable layers of metal barriers has been projected from memory and reconstructed. And further, the action, as much as the image, of finding a tortuous path through a dangerous land has been brought back to life. In this way, crossing a road has become a ritual commemoration, which in the progress of PTSD is one of the later stages of mind as it comes to accept a traumatising event or image.