The Architecture Of Loss

23 Jan 2016

Even before we have learnt to write ‘2016’ in the date, the year has seen several high-profile deaths. Icons like Motorhead singer Lemmy Kilmister (technically 2015, but I’m choosing to not split hairs here), David Bowie and Alan Rickman have been lost to cancer. As Daisy Buchanan puts so succinctly in her article in The Pool, “the Venn Diagram [of dedicated fans of either Lemmy, Bowie or Rickman] contains almost everyone in the world, with a sizeable overlap”


The fans gave vent to their grief through spontaneous tributes that popped up in locations linked to the celebrities : Lemmy’s fans gathered at the Rainbow bar to celebrate his music, while flowers respectfully piled up at Bowie’s mural in Brixton and at Platform 9&3/4 at King’s Cross Station linked to Rickman’s character of Snape. 



This led me to think about the nature of public grief and the role played by architects and artists in channelling it. It is a harder task than you might think. How do you design something that represents death without being pithy or overly sentimental. How do you distil the vast emotion of loss and grief into one structure. And stay within budget!




I live not very far from a very poignant memorial. In the heart of Cardiff Bay, right outside the National Assembly, lies the Merchant Seaman’s Memorial. Designed and sculpted by artist Brian Fell, it is simple in its message and powerful in its delivery. Approached from one side, all that is visible is the hull of a ship. Even without knowing that it is a memorial, viewers will sense that something is not quite right by the unnatural tilt of the hull, and the impression that it has been torn away from the body of the ship. They will subconsciously start thinking of shipwrecks.




When they walk to the other side, they are confronted not by the bottom of the ship as expected, but a face in repose. (photo courtesy



Representing all the merchant seamen lost to the sea, the visual impact of the memorial cannot be understated. I have lived in Cardiff for nearly 15 years, and while other landmarks have faded into the periphery of my busy life, this memorial still takes my breath away every time I walk past. I am always struck by how it forces the viewer to walk around it several times, making it a perfect example of public art. The exposed hull is a magnet for children who cannot help clambering all over it in play. The juxtaposition of laughing children and the depiction of the dead seamen, to me perfectly represents how the future is quite literally built by the sacrifice of the nameless many.  I am perfectly aware that Brian Fell is an artist, not an architect, but where memorials are concerned I do believe the lines between architecture and art start to blur





While a memorial to people lost at sea might not personally touch everyone, a war memorial will certainly reach out to a larger population. This is a hard one to design, as it has to represent not only the sacrifice of the dead but also the stoicism of the loved ones they leave behind and the gratitude of the general masses. There are so many sensitively designed war memorials that it’s hard to choose one to talk about, but the one I have recently visited is the New Zealand War Memorial in London. Designed by architect John Hardwick-Smith, it is located in Hyde Park Corner. Like the example above, it is something that you walk past, around and even through. When viewed from one angle it looks like quite ordinary – ten black girders sticking up at a jaunty angle.



But keep walking, and at one particular angle, the chamfered top surface comes into view, and you are faced with a legion of white crosses. It instantly brings to mind a graveyard, and the white, of course, represents the ultimate sacrifice. Go closer, and you can walk through the girders, reading the carvings on them, making them effective at a personal level too.





Both the above memorials explore the loss caused by war and the sea, extending across time and generations, as the human emotion they tap into remains current across time. In the next blog post, I hope to write about memorials that home in on specific landmark events that changed the course of history. How does an architect approach that and condense it into a single edifice? How, indeed!





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