9: Trenches (2)

As well as parallel front-line, reserve and supply trenches, the trench system also included communication lines at right angles to the rest so that all could be linked.

Scaling laddersRowley Way, Alexandra Road


Fixing scaling ladders at Arras;  Rowley Way, Alexandra Road estate, Kilburn

Architect’s intention: The gently curving and repetitive terrace of Rowley Way was designed with a Georgian terrace in mind, in particular the Royal Crescent at Bath.
Effect in practice: Any hint of Georgiana is masked by the ponderous nature of the concrete, which also weathers badly. The stairs have had to be made quite steep so access is difficult to the upper flats, where blind corners caused by the many concrete members are also common.
Visual effect: The twin rows of steeply rising staircases mirror the scaling ladders from communication trenches far better than they resemble an elegant Georgian terrace. The form-boarded concrete also has a hint of the Front as trench walls were often lined with railway sleepers. The concrete itself is decorative, in that the volume used is wasteful – it would have been cheaper and as functional to use metal handrails. The question is whether such decoration itself have a function?
Phenomenological effect: To walk down Rowley Way is to invite a feeling of claustrophobia as there is no escape once you have set out. If someone suspicious is coming the other way, tension will rise, and flight up the stairwells will seem the only option left. It is a mild form of the tension-filled scenario experienced by soldiers as they prepared to mount the ladders to go over the top.
Discussion: The scale of Rowley Way is greater than that of a trench, but this unique piece of architecture, designed in the mid-Sixties and never repeated, is a good example of how far intention at the time was divorced from effect.
Having been pointed out, the resemblance to the Royal Crescent is clear, but, also having been pointed out, so is the resemblance to a trench. The difference between the two is the experiences evoked by both precursors, and one of which is repeated here. Arrive at and walk by the Royal Crescent and it’s difficult not to indulge oneself in a Jane Austen-style fantasy, whereas walk down Rowley Way and Clockwork Orange comes to mind. It is obvious which association is closer to the experience of a First World War trench.
It is as if the design process primarily progressed, and was pulled forward, by the effects it created, as much as by the deliberate plans of the creators. They were not trying to create a hostile environment, far from it. However, the incremental steps steered by the Modernist subconscious via the creative milieu of designer and survivor of the war, hidden as they were behind a faith in Modernist principles which blocked rationalising of defects in such a way as to stop the process being knocked off course, allowed the memories of a distant past to find expression.