Thursday, 22 April 2010

Pugin's 'Contrasts' Revisited: III

A. W. N. Pugin's highly influential Contrasts, published at the tail end of the Georgian era in 1836, uses paired illustrations to demonstrate what he saw as a descent into degenerate design. It was also a manifesto for a return to proper, honest design, rooted in moral principles. In the run-up to the General Election on 6 May, we offer our own series of paired illustrations to show how design quality in the public realm has fallen off alarmingly; it is an indictment of recent practice, but also shows the huge opportunities for improvement. Civic space has been badly degraded, with a whole range of negative consequences that go far beyond aesthetics. The second decade of the twenty-first century should be a time when, individually and collectively, we get a grip on the design, management and maintenance of shared urban space.

Click on the images for larger versions.

With the rash of Second War memorials appearing in central London, you could be forgiven for thinking the war happened seven rather than seventy years ago. Perhaps there is a rush to honour the combatants while they are still alive to appreciate the gesture. That is understandable, and it is also perhaps understandable that aesthetic criticism is muted; people admire the bravery and sacrifice of those involved in war and, in an over-sensitive age, questioning the design and siting of memorials might be misconstrued as questioning the heroism that inspired them. We should not be so meek. Part of the reason the Royal Fine Art Commission was set up in 1924 was to introduce a degree of aesthetic control over the welter of war memorials being erected after the Great War. And now, with Hyde Park Corner and Green Park beginning to resemble a graveyard, it is time once again to hone our critical faculties.

What has happened in Whitehall serves as a warning. For nearly ninety years, Lutyens's Cenotaph has served as a national focus for remembrance of sacrifice in war. And facing it from a respectful distance, in a way that is hugely poignant, is a fine equestrian statue of Earl Haig (left). But now, plonked between the two in front of Barry's Cabinet Office, there is an interloper: a memorial to The Women of World War Two (right). And what a clodhopper it is: a standing affront to the grace and eloquence of every memorial and building around it. It would look fine, perhaps, in Outer Minsk. But here?

You might question the need for the memorial at all. After all, the 'women of World War Two' were part of a collective human endeavour and it is more than a little patronising to treat them as a separate subspecies. But if we are to memorialise them separately, must we do so with something that resembles nothing so much as a lump of petrified excrement? They, and we, deserve better.

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