7: Machine-gun posts

As the Western Front coagulated all the way from the Swiss border to the Channel in late 1914, more permanent military features were built. Commonplace among them were strengthened concrete containers for machine-guns, the most devastating weapon of the war.

Machine-gun EmplacementWaterloo Road, conference suite

Machine-gun setting, Ypres;  Waterloo Rd, Union Jack conference suite

Architect’s intention: The building on Waterloo Road is a conference suite attached to a 20-storey office and accommodation tower housing the Union Jack Club (a private club for the non-commissioned ranks of the armed forces). The slope in the lower wall stops passers-by from resting at length and from leaving litter. The restrained windows are a Modernist motif. [The door has been refurbished.]

Effect in practice: The careful design of this building is puzzling, since all of its characteristic features serve only to make the building function worse than it might by using a conventional design. The slope is sullenly ineffective, the windows make the rooms inside too dark, and the oppressive brick facade works against welcoming strangers, one of the basic functions of a conference centre.

Visual effect: To look at this building is to see an object which seems to be hiding something, or which embodies defensiveness.

Phenomenological effect:
Walking past such a low-slung, unobtrusive monolith evokes a mild feeling of apprehension, as if those inside can look out and observe you, but you have not been allowed to look in.

Discussion: This building would be funny if it weren’t so glum. It merits a Lady Bracknell-like splutter of recognition: “A conference centre?!” But its shock value, I think, is greater if one considers it for what it isn’t: a machine-gun emplacement.

So one has to return to the original response and ask how was its design squared with that of a conference centre in the first place? How could someone, an architect, have the certainty that this design made for an acceptable conference centre?

This is where the faith of the Modern Movement comes into play, and the certainty it gave to its followers. Here, one of the movement’s doctrines, that of functionalism, has been deployed with authority to provide a rational basis for the design. Every element will have been justified on the grounds of having a function, and perforce could brook no argument and had to be accepted.

And yet, now, few would think of building a conference centre in this way. The reason the design could have been acceptable once is that, at a time when its inherent memory image – a machine-gun post – stimulated memories and minds, faith’s authoritative attitutde, expressed through the doctrine of functionalism, acted as an impregnable wall of reason that allowed the memory image to filter through from behind.

To elaborate on this, if one accepts that this building looks like a machine-gun post, one could also accept that this association or resonance is out of place, particularly for a conference centre. If one then applies the architectural critic Mark Cousins’ understanding of the out-of-place as the basis of our understanding of the ugly, then it is also ugly. Which means the architect’s certainty about its acceptability implied he had faith in the ugly. He believed in the ugly. And, if he had belief in it, he had to understand it as embodying, in some way, truth. He believed the ugly to be true. Which sounds counter-intuitive. Unless you had survived Passchendaele, or endured a privileged Englishman’s life knowing your teenage son had become Flanders mud. In which case truth was ugly. The Modern Movement believed in the ugly, because truth was ugly.

The nature of the truth, in both cases, was not theoretical, but perceptual. It was true because it had happened and had been gazed upon. It had been seen. Le Corbusier looked at the industrial world about him, at the distant example of Greek order and based the tenets of his Modernist faith on what he saw. Survivors had seen the trenches and, with this horror in mind, accepted the new faith as a new scaffolding of mind to deal with the memory. The latter drew from the former until the former drew for the latter what both knew to be true. To invert Keats, “Ugliness was truth, truth ugliness, that was all they knew on earth, and all they needed to know.”