One of my favorite architectural monuments is British Sir Edwin Lutyens Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, commemorating the lives lost at the first Battle of the Somme, fought 100-years-on now, in May 1916.
Among his other credentials, Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944) was one of the principal architects of the cemeteries and memorials of the First World War. He was commissioned by the Imperial War Graves Commission (now Commonwealth War Graves Commission) to design many of the cemeteries and memorials to the missing on the Western Front.
After the Armistice, the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission created cemeteries to mark the burial places of those who had died while serving with the armed forces of the British Empire. To commemorate those with no known grave, the Commission constructed memorials to the “missing”: those whose bodies had not been recovered; those whose graves had been unrecorded, lost or destroyed by battle; or those whose remains could not be identified and had been buried beneath a headstone bearing the inscription “Known Unto God.”
The Thiepval Memorial is dedicated to “The Missing of the Somme”: more than 72,000 Commonwealth soldiers killed. Construction at Thiepval began in 1928 and the memorial was officially inaugurated on 1 August 1932, when the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, King of Great Britain (1841-1910), expressed the Commission’s determination to honor the dead by “material expression…as enduring as human hands and human art can make it.”
Originally raised in the bleak landscape above the Ancre, the memorial is now surrounded by mature trees and countryside. Standing some fifty meters high, it takes the form of a series of arches, interlocking at right-angles, rising to a tower.
It was built largely with locally-sourced red bricks, many of which were later replaced by specially-engineered substitutes to help prevent erosion. Around the base of each of its sixteen ground-level piers are panels of Portland stone inscribed with names.
Remarkable for its singular vision, Lutyens’ precise geometry and intellectual imagination subverts and elevates the simple form of the triumphal arch into a meditation on war and loss.
If we analyze the geometry of Thiepval, we see the successive piling up, the careful placement of tier upon tier of massive elements culminating in an impossible arch, deliberately placed on thin columns deliberately proportioned so as to fly in the face of traditional, classical architecture as it existed before the Great War.
In so-doing, Lutyen’s monument constitutes one of the important links between the traditions of Classical vs. Modern architecture.