8: Trenches (1)

The main element of the Western Front was the linear, hand-dug trench. Several parallel lines were usually dug, for accommodation, reserves and supplies, behind the front line. The latter was dug to just above head height, with a parados mound behind, a parapet in front and usually a fire-step cut into the front from which to shoot. The trench’s potential as a feature in the urban landcape would seem to be limited, but in the Fifties it began to crop up regularly.

Fire trench sectionChurchill trench

Section of a fire trench;  Churchill Gardens, Pimlico

Architect’s intention: At Churchill Gardens, it is to provide a public green space between the flats and the road.
Effect in practice: The result is a strip of land too small for any practical use. Being common land it belongs to no one so it would also leave any potential user feeling insecure. It can only be accessed with difficulty from the road and so is of little use for people walking by.
Visual effect: A sunken trench, of little use to anyone, has become part of the urban landscape. Inhabitants looking out from the ground floor windows can only see a wall blocking their view.
Phenomenological effect: To walk along the grass evokes the same feelings as walking along a trench in one of the front’s quieter periods. Above and beyond the wall one can sense a more dangerous world, while the experience of being down here is to feel safer but cut off.
Discussion: For a time when function was paramount it is difficult to imagine a less functional use of land, especially when land use is a primary urban value. Too insecure to hang clothes in, too cramped to sunbathe, it isn’t suitable for any obvious function, except as something to look at, and to experience being in. The question is whether the emotions and sensations evoked by this experience, in matching those that would have been experienced while living in a First World War trench, is coincidental or significant.