14: Strategic Outcrops

At some points along the Western Front small hillocks stood out, offering advantage to forces that held them. Such eminences became a crux of conflict, and a particularly prominent focus when battle came to be recalled.

Butte de WarlencourtRobin Hood Gardens

Butte de Warlencourt, Somme (Orpen);  Robin Hood Gardens, Poplar, 1962 plan

Architect’s intention: Rubble accumulated during construction of this estate was used to make an artificial hill in the central park area, presumably as a recreational feature. It may have been considered as a Modernist quip on the idea of an ancient tumulus, such as Silbury, and, in recent years, four small standing stones have indeed been set up on the top of it (it is much higher than the scale of the woman in the drawing vis-a-vis the mound would tend to suggest).

Effect in practice: Small children like running up and down the hillock, and the view from the top is pleasant, but one is left wondering about the amount of effort needed to produce something of such limited value.

Visual effect: The main effect of the mound is in terms of the scale of its visual presence. It is in full view of all the flats on the estate: a bare, artificial, conspicuously out-of-place hill.

Phenomenological effect: The hill imposes itself on anyone within the confines of the estate. It is there, always there, and can even be climbed, if one can find the will to climb it knowing already every view from it.

Discussion: The Butte de Warlencourt was one of the pivotal points on the battlefield of the Somme. Several hideous battles were fought over it. When William Orpen painted it in 1917, most of the earth had been blown away, leaving only the denuded limestone outcrop. Thousands died fighting in and around and for this worthless lump of rock.
When the Smithsons put forward their first designs for Robin Hood Gardens in 1962, Alan Clark’s The Donkeys was a bestseller, Benjamin Britten was putting the final touches to his War Requiem and Joan Littlewood was putting her Theatre Workshop through rehearsals for Oh What a Lovely War. Then, along with a radical design for flats, the people of Poplar in the East End, many of them survivors of the war, were presented with a plan for homes featuring a stark, denuded, artificial hill at the centre.
Coincidence, or a trick of memory? My guess is that this image, in particular, evoked a moment of recognition among many of those who considered it, and that this played a part in their approval of such a radical design.
It is notable that the Smithsons have humanised the scene with the woman seated at the front. Is she there to detoxify the mountain of memory behind her, or to distract the eye, the mind, so that what she sits upon can be made bearable? It is no more than a hill of rubble; just identical to that at the centre of the worst day in the history of British forces 46 years before, and of a battle about which writers, composers and actors were still mesmerised decades later.