Building remembrance

Visiting Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, the poppy installation at the Tower of London, reminded me that the built environment frequently plays an important part in both remembrance and memory.

Each of the 888,246 ceramic poppies that flood the moat of the Tower depicts a death in the British forces in the First World War. The true poignancy of the sea of red embracing the ancient fortress is unimaginable until one becomes part of this ephemeral happening. As I viewed the poppies they stood fragile, shimmering in the late afternoon light while the stone walls of the Tower offered solidity – the reassurance of a thousand years of history.

Thankfully, my grandfather survived the trenches yet, as the sun went down and the roll of honour was read, I remembered him and the stories he’d told of his comrades who ‘didn’t make it’. The reader’s voice and then the mournful call of the Last Post echoed off the floodlit masonry, the sound enveloping the building and penetrating its heart. Across the river, The Shard glowed, a modern sentinel too young to remember. Though, for all who ascend within its glass shell to view the intricate spread of London, it is a place of new memories.

Inevitably St Paul’s will be pointed out. Between 1710 and 1939 it was the tallest structure in the city. The image of its dome, illuminated by the blitz of the Second World War as the capital burnt around it, lives on as a powerful reminder of conflict. It is not though Sir Christopher Wren who has left us the greatest architectural legacy of remembrance. This role fell to Sir Edwin Lutyens.

In addition to the Cenotaph in Whitehall and the nation’s largest war memorial – The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval – Lutyens designed more than fifty memorials to the Great War in cities, towns and villages in Britain and abroad. This work is remembered in a book I’ve just taken from the shelf in my office: Lutyens and the Great War by Tim Skelton and Gerald Gliddon, published by Frances Lincoln.

Images: ©Roger Hunt