13: Craters (3)

As well as large mines, heavy ordnance also pockmarked ground along the Front. On the great battlefields, everything was destroyed, turned to rubble, mud and viscera. Nothing remained in the wasteland, except the craters. Soldiers hid in them for protection as more artillery shells crashed around them.

Shell HolesGolden Lane piazza

Shell Holes, Western Front; Golden Lane piazza, Barbican

Architect’s intention: The roof of an underground car-park has been used to provide a raised piazza in front of the Corbusier-inspired central apartment tower on this Fifties estate. The circular objects act both as car-exhaust vents and as light wells. The area has great prominence in the estate as pathways criss-cross it and the grand staircase, to the left, gives it an elevated air, hinting perhaps at the effect Michelangelo gave the Campidoglio in Rome where his spacious staircase leads up to the piazza.

Effect in practice: The space fails as a piazza as it is distanced from each of the surrounding elements, such as the tower, and so seems among them, but not of them. The vents don’t allow enough light into the car-park so strip lighting has to be permanently switched on below. They also have spare capacity for exhaust fumes, and a simple air-extraction vent would have sufficed.

Visual effect: Cut off from the surrounding buildings and elevated to some prominence, the piazza achieves great presence as an object to look at, particularly from the surrounding flats, yet it looks like a barren field, pockmarked with ambiguous holes, and dropped into the city. It stands out, but in a detached way. All features and decoration have been stripped away, except an insistent, windswept barrenness, and craters.

Phenomenological effect: To walk among the craters on the piazza evokes a feeling of wonder. What are they? Why are they here? And when one finds out, and ascribes to them their intentioned function, the functions don’t fit. One feels this place is out-of-place, the suggestion is that it is also out-of-time.

Discussion: The craters are dysfunctional only in terms of their intentioned function. In terms of their unintentioned, subconscious function, their function as measured by effect rather than intention, they seem to work very well. This is as objects to gaze down on, for old soldiers, mothers, survivors, remembrancers housed in the Modernist flats above, flats that have emerged from a tabula rasa, flats cut off from history and here faced only with memory, or a cratered remnant of it.