David Dunster on the National Memorial Arboretum’s Remembrance Centre, designed by Glenn Howells Architects
Victims of war and civil disaster tend to be commemorated more at the scenes of death than in purpose-made collective facilities elsewhere. Most people will know of first world war memorials in northern France, elegantly catalogued by JM Busscher in ‘Les Folies de l’Industrie’ – most famously the great arch at Thiepval designed by Edwin Lutyens. They are powerful expressions of loss and grief.
The National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, which opened in 2001, was conceived by former naval commander David Childs as an appropriate way to commemorate all those who have served in the armed forces or died in conflict. Neither a cemetery nor a war memorial, it is instead a place of remembrance. Trees have been used to express life and the annual cycle of rebirth. It is within this sombre context that Glenn Howells Architects was given the brief for a visitor centre, exhibition spaces, a shop and refectory.
Aerial view of the Remembrance Centre and the Armed Forced Memorial by architect Liam O’Connor and sculptor Ian Rank-Broadley (2007)
The site sits on reclaimed quarry workings between the Rivers Trent and Tame at Alrewas, which means alluvial land growing with alder trees, and derives from the old English for an alder (alor) and ‘waesse’, a flood plain. Alrewas has no particular connection to victims of war, but is midway between the M6 toll and the M1 so it has reasonable accessibility. However mysterious the choice of location seems, over 330 memorials have now been set into a 150-acre landscape which in 20 years may look less like a tree nursery and more like an arboretum.
Anyone who has travelled to Bologna or Padua will intuit the value of arcades; there especially they unify the city and generally put the buildings to which they attach in second place.”
Several prominent structures existed on the site before Howells won the visitor centre competition, including a refectory, a chapel and the Armed Forces Memorial by Liam O’Connor, who is thereby responsible for the only hill on the site. Howells’ role seems to be in part to frame and bring order to growing chaos, unifying this diverse collection of built and arboreal elements.
The classical devices of arcades and creating square with a platform looking out over the landscape provide the architectural mechanisms, which by themselves might have been enough. To them, however, is added a classical sense of proportion. The idea of good proportions stands in the opposite corner to functionalism, carrying too much weight from the classical and neoclassical past to make any sense within the canons of Modernism. If it is right, then it is right.
The visitor arrives at the site via a huge car park, from which they can see the fifteen bays of the new building. A walkway lines up with a drum protruding above the roofline, but this does not signal the entrance, which is either to the left, for the learning centre, or to the right for the shop and restaurant.
Once inside, the drum reappears as a curved backdrop to the reception desk, but the view is straight down though the refectory, and through the glazing to the gardens and trees. In that beyond lie the many memorials, within a light woodland – most prominently a giant polar bear on a brick drum, commemorating the 49th Infantry West Riding Division’s deployment to the deep snows of Iceland during the second world war.
Passing out into the courtyard lined with arcades on three sides, the cleverness of Howells’ scheme becomes clear. This is about lending gravitas, not ‘Look at me,I can do structural gymnastics’ work. However, the columns of the arcade, in wood with a stony finish are elegantly detailed – by which I mean no visible detail. Care has been taken to encase rainwater downpipes in the columns, for example.
This is not the only consideration which makes this a clever and thoughtful scheme. A four-metre grid extends across the whole project but it is not intrusive because the arcades dominate the building visually, and by their importance overcome any sense of regimentation.
Anyone who has travelled to Bologna or Padua will intuit the value of arcades; there especially they unify the city and generally put the buildings to which they attach in second place. It means that when major public space occurs in the city – as in Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore – the major buildings, civic and religious, can breathe. At Alrewas, the landscape can breathe, even if we currently see it in nascent form.
Glenn Howells Architects
Cost consultant, project manager
Glulam timber frame
BCL Timber Products