11: Craters (1)

As a result of stagnation on the front – around Ypres the line moved no more than a few miles in three years despite the massive thrusts of 1917 – deep mines were set below enemy lines at the end of tunnels dug covertly under no-man’s-land. These devices, made with thousands of kilos of ammonal, produced a devastating effect, killing thousands in an instant and leaving survivors and perpetrators in shock. They left large craters which survived for years afterwards. Some, indeed, can still be visited today.

Lochnagar craterGolden Lane estate

Lochnagar Crater, La Boiselle;  Golden Lane estate, Barbican

Architect’s intention: This sunken, circular feature in the communal garden of Golden Lane is used today as a children’s play area. It has been brightly painted, and some playthings have been added as well as a rubberised covering on the ground. Originally, the concrete was undecorated.

Effect in practice: The floor of the play area is largely invisible from the garden, so parents cannot leave small children playing alone, nor would small children feel comfortable being unable to see their carers. Access is via steps and a low doorway so rushing towards a small child who falls over is difficult.

Visual effect: At best the concrete hole looks a little like a giant sand pit, but, even with the addition of the bright paint, looks more like a bear pit.

Phenomenological effect: To sit inside evokes a feeling of mild claustrophobia and insecurity. To see it in the garden from the flats above evokes a slight feeling of wonder, as to why such an elaborate, and at the same time slightly useless, if not absurd, feature might have been added.

Discussion: At Golden Lane, a landmark modernist estate of the Fifties, functionalism is paramount. Each design element has been included only if it has a specific function. Nothing is decorative. However, sinking the play area and surrounding it with an expensive wall adds no functionality. In fact, doing so detracts from functional effectiveness. Having the play area at ground level and surrounding it with a metal or picket fence would have increased the visibility and security of the children, as well as increasing the pleasure of adults watching them.

What seems at first a functional design is, in fact, a decorative one. More concrete than is necessary has been used, more effort has been put into excavating it, and more imaginative energy has been used to design it. My suggestion is that this extra expenditure, of money, materials and effort, this decorative excess, is the subconsciously projected memory component of the object (or, in architectural jargon, ‘the intervention in the landscape’).

Rather than artistic re-presentation of some vague ideological melange of functionalism, minimalism and brutalism, this little feature is more akin to direct symptomatic presentation by a patient. The excessive elements – the crater-like depth and the saucer-like effect provided by the concrete – are no more than what they are. They are unmediated by any idea of art. They are the image itself, of what was once seen, and is projected here, in mirror image. They are a picture of what could not be forgotten.

Or, at least, not until now, when the feature has been made present to be gazed upon, and from which the viewer can, finally, walk away.