15: Duckboards

In wet weather, duckboards were essential for soldiers to cross battlefields, particularly at Passchendaele where regular, torrential downpours turned the Flanders clay into a quagmire. The mud on either side often became so deep that horses and soldiers drowned, as in a swamp, if they slipped in.

French troops on the Yser, YpresMarble Arch gyratory

French troops at Ypres, 1917;  Marble Arch walkway bridge (2004)

Architect’s intention: The Marble Arch footbridge has been added to carry pedestrians across a decorative pool in the middle of the traffic island. The bridge is reached by ascending steps from a subway and it leads to steps down to another subway and asub-surface plaza with public conveniences.

Effect in practice: The bridge is functional, but it sits astride a shallow pool whose decorative function is undermined by its position in the middle of a busy traffic island. In questioning why pedestrians are forced to come up from below ground simply to return below, having crossed the bridge, it seems plausible to suggest that experiencing the bridge is the intention behind the design.

Visual effect: The plain bridge jars with the decorative pool and fountains (when they work – they have since been superseded by plants). There is a dissonance between the desire to add decoration with the pool, and the refusal to design a bridge in a way that acknowledges and supplements this decoration.

Phenomenological effect: Crossing the bridge should produce the pleasant effect of crossing water, but the designers seem to have been blind to the setting of heavy traffic circling the island, overwhelming any positive experience.

Discussion: Marble Arch is an elaborate gyratory system, and the pool and bridge are an expensive, decorative element in it. Yet the assemblage is handled so crudely that the observer is left struggling to understand the reasoning or the mind-set behind what can only be described as ineptitude in terms of creating a pleasant urban space. Once again, as good an explanation as any seems to be that, given that there are no other decorative elements in this section of the system, the pool and bridge are prominent images in the minds of those involved with the design, and that this prominence derives from the commonplace existence of such swamp and duckboard landscapes on the Western Front.