12: Craters (2)

For major offensives, a series of mines, sometimes requiring years of tunnelling, was sometimes set off in the hope of destabilising a substantial stretch of the Front Line. At Vimy Ridge, ‘sap’ trenches were cut to the edge of the mine crater afterwards. (At Vimy, the trenches and saps have been preserved – in concrete).

Vimy Ridge cratersRobin Hood Gardens

Vimy Ridge, mine craters in no-man’s-land;
Robin Hood Gardens, Poplar

Architect’s intention: Two small enclosures have been sunk into the park in front of the flats in this architecturally significant housing estate designed in the mid-1960s by Alison and Peter Smithson. Two similar sunken pits have been situated in front of the opposing accommodation block (right of picture). They are connected to the pathways by short cuttings. They are intended to be play areas for children and relaxation areas.

Effect in practice: As play areas, they work poorly. No fence surrounds the wall so small children can fall in. The pits themselves are too confined except for the smallest children. (A larger, more functional, play area, not sunken, was added after this photograph was taken, roughly where the upper pit is located.) As places to sit and relax they are ambiguous, providing neither pathside benches for being sociable with passers-by nor enough privacy for discreet meetings.

Visual effect: Given the functional drawbacks of these pits, it can seem as if they have been put there to be looked upon from the flats as much as for anything else. They look like craters in the park, umbilically connected to the winding, trench-like footpath by the sunken pathways that could be construed as sap trenches.

Phenomenological effect: Inhabiting these pits reproduces the sensation of standing sentry in a crater, a common, and very nerve-wracking, practice on the Front Line.

Discussion: For features which are so functionally dubious in the present, these pits match surprisingly well with elements of a landscape from the past held in the popular memory. Could this matching be, in fact, their primary function? Note the low bench on the right-hand wall of the lower pit – precisely how a fire-step would be cut into the front of a crater to face the enemy line.