War memorial design honours forgotten veterans

From left are Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) project lead David MacDonald, CWGC’s creative advisor, Sir David Adjaye, CWGC’s director of external relations Liz Woodfield; winner Dean Jay and ward councillor Ian MacMohan

The winner of a design competition for a proposed memorial honouring black South Africans who gave their lives in World War I was announced at the Cape Institute for Architecture on Thursday September 1.

The memorial, which will be commissioned by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), will bear the names of more than 1 600 service men who were not formerly commemorated.

The successful design by Dean Jay Architects of Durban was chosen out of 10 finalists for the memorial, which will be built in the Company’s Garden in the Cape Town city centre.

The announcement was made by CWGC’s creative advisor, internationally renowned architect and chair of the judging panel, Sir David Adjaye, following a competition that attracted more than 50 entries from across South Africa.

A sculpture of the winning design by Dean Jay Architects.

Conceptualised with the idea of land artwork The Lightning Field by sculptor Walter De Maria in New Mexico, the installation will consist of a marker in the form of a pole for each of the servicemen.

The poles, or markers, will be made with African hardwood with a partial steel core.

Mr Adjaye said they received 56 “high quality” entries and narrowed it down to 10, from which they chose a winner.

Entries for the competition closed on the June 2 this year.

He said when judging the designs, the judges thought of many aspects and asked themselves questions, including how people are memorialised in the 21st century. “Is it an experience? Is it an object, or a landscape? Or is it in the cloud?”

He said the entries made were compelling, however, the winner, he thought, captured the idea of the piece.

“This is the erasure of thousands of people from the history of the war that really emancipated the world we now live in.

“The architect understood that it wasn’t just about putting names on the wall, but actually to give dignity to the families who will find them now and in the future, and also to give dignity to those who are living now with the loss.”

He said the design tackles the issues, but it also manages to complement the site and be respectful of the history, while announcing itself very clearly. “It is a light touch with high impact.”

An emotional Mr Jay said he was honoured to have been announced as the winning designer. “It’s a big thing – it’s a huge honour on so many levels. I was a war veteran and on the wrong side. When you are in war, you don’t know the wrong side until it is done. It’s one of the unique things of war, you’re told or convinced that your side is the right side and I’m just anti-war personally.”

Mr Jay, who owns a firm in Durban, and said the winning design came from team effort.

He said he entered the competition as the firm was searching for a meaningful project – “something less commercial and more special”.

He said when they had started, they had no pre-conceived ideas. “If you start with a preconceived idea, its difficult to move in a different direction, so as a skills set, we try to train architects at the firm to absorb everything and research before you come up with an idea.”

He said one of the fixed ideas they did have was to have a marker for every serviceman that had died.

“These names-on-a-wall memorials come across as disrespectful, perhaps.

“It was quite a challenge to make equal recognition in a very constrained space, and that’s why we had to make the insertions quite understated but powerful.”

He said once the memorial is built they will sample the poles as that will be the only way to test its durability. They will also have to figure out any safety concerns they may have as the final designs are prepared for the next public participation process.

Liz Woodfield, CWGC’s director of external relations who is also overseeing the project, said the design was imaginative, sensitive, and entirely appropriate.

“It will fulfil its function, as a memorial bearing the names of more than 1 600 South Africans, but it will also become part of the rich artistic heritage of the War Graves Commission and indeed South Africa.”

She said the project started five years ago when a group of researchers found records in South African Archives and realised that there were 1600 names of military labour who were not commemorated. “We had to think about what we wanted to do in order to recognise these individuals.”

After hosting several workshops in Johannesburg with military veterans, they found that most of the men attested in the Eastern and Western Cape.

She said out of a list of spaces, the Company’s Garden was chosen because it had lots of footfall, was central and also secure.

She said this was the first time the CWGC held a competition to choose a memorial design. “We felt that we wanted South Africans to connect with it. This was the peoples’ memorial and we were fortunate to get hugely talented people.

“It was also a wonderful opportunity for South African artists.”

She said while choosing the design was a huge milestone, the next step was to submit the final plans for public participation, and by next year, they were hoping to start building the memorial, however, they were uncertain of when exactly they will go ahead.

Ward councillor for the city centre Ian MacMohan said the memorial was an excellent way forward for the Company’s Garden.

“It brings some much-needed focus on memorialising the people that were forgotten and it has expansion for growth.”

He said the City has been rehabilitating the water channels in the gardens, and will also be investing in the horticulture, which compliments the plan for the memorial.