Sixty-one regional winners were entered into the Corobrik SAIA Architectural Awards. Six projects received Awards for Excellence, the highest distinction that SAIA can confer on a project in South Africa; The Delville Wood Memorial, France by Creative Axis and Mayat Hart Architects, was one of them.
To evoke the memory of an event by means of architecture is difficult. Architects, throughout time and all over the world have been confronted many times with this problem before. In many instances, these were make or break commissions. They and their clients either succeed gracefully or stumble awkwardly. It would seem that the design responses are mostly split between well-considered subtlety and respect or grotesque absurdities.
When considering the South African Delville Wood before the realization of the design of Creative Axis Architects & Mayat Hart Architects it would all seem a bit ‘strange’ and slightly bordering on the absurd when viewed from a contemporary perspective.
The Delville Wood battle of the First World War (WW1) are one of the most epic battles that might have occurred in the sad history of warfare. It was the first important battle between the South African contingent of the Allied Forces and the Germans in the battle of the Somme. The order was to take the wood ‘at all cost’. The result was that only 143 out of a total of 3 153 South African soldiers survived after this six-day battle. The devastation of the soldiers and the wood was total. In time, however the woods grew back and the scars inflicted on human bodies and memories began to fade.
It is usually then at this point when memorialization by means of architecture occurs. The purpose usually is to commemorate, to document and by doing so to try to bring humankind to its senses so that it would never happens again. Yet, sadly, mankind seems to always fail in this regard.
Sometimes such monuments become a vehicle to create a legacy or to make a political statement. The first South African memorial at the site was built in 1926, not too long after the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910. This building was designed by Sir Herbert Baker. In 1986 the then South African government built another memorial and museum at the site. This time around it was opened by Mr. PW Botha. This happened to the background of severe international and internal pressure on the Apartheid State. The new Delville Wood Memorial was completed in 2016 to commemorate the centenary of the battle. In this instance the project was commissioned by the democratically elected government.
These three stages or time periods are all reflected in the architecture of the as it at present. Baker’s hand is easily recognized as the architect of the first memorial. The Apartheid Government used an architect from England to create a museum in the form of a mini version of the castle in Cape Town. This was placed to surround the Cross of Consecration on the axis created by Baker. The architectural dichotomies and tension between these two actions are clear and quite sad. It was between these two memorials where the current architects decided to place their memorial that was built to commemorate all South Africans who lost their lives in WW1. They based their design on the concept and desire that this memorial should become part of the journey and that it should not be a destination.
The architects described their design in the following manner;
The new memorial aims to sit gently within the site, a new historical layer not trying to compete with or overshadow the old. Sited between the old memorial and the museum, it becomes part of the journey between the two rather than a destination in itself. Its aim is to commemorate the service of all South Africans who lost their lives in the First World War, particularly the members of the South African Native Labour Corps, who had received no official recognition.
The memorial takes the form of a subtle trench, partially submerged into the ground, evoking both the idea of the trenches that still fill the surrounding wood and that were so characteristic of the war as well as the idea of being sunk or submerged underground. Outwardly the memorial has little visual presence. Inside the ‘trench’ the sandstone walls are lined with nearly 15 000 names of the soldiers who lost their lives, listed alphabetically regardless of rank or race, unified in their contribution and loss.
It is this subtle approach that is impressive in the face of the design history of the memorial. Their work is also based on thorough research. They did not try to dominate what was already there and by doing so they are, in many ways, holding up a mirror to what was existing. Their approach also delivers a commentary on how history, power and memory were previously expressed. There is a high degree of excellence in their quiet reserved manner in which they have achieved this. It may also important to note that they were the first South African architects to work on the site and that they are young enough to have received their training in the post-apartheid dispensation.
The Corobrik SAIA Architectural Awards were held concurrently with AZA18, Africa’s premier urban cultural festival focused on architecture.