If there is such a thing as a ‘modern architecture gene’ then I certainly have one. I became aware of it during my teenage years in Plymouth. The centre of the city was completely re-modelled in the 1950s and, although I had no knowledge of what it was like before it was laid waste by the German bombers of World War Two, I instinctively approved of the reincarnation: wide, straight boulevards and bright buildings of concrete, white stone and glass, clean and unadorned except for a little meaningful modern sculpture here and there. This patch of modernity, however, was not about denying the city’s deep heritage which is rooted in the places visible from the hilly vistas down to Plymouth Sound. Places such as the Barbican, the Royal Naval Dockyards, Stonehouse and the Hoe continue to be the lifeblood of the city.
Proudly positioned high on the Hoe stands a structure dedicated as a reminder of the city’s role in history. It is the memorial monument to the Royal Naval personnel who died in the two World Wars. I was drawn to it visually by its striking, sombre architecture but then, more intimately, by the lists of names recorded there on bronze tablets. I began, out of simple curiosity, by looking for my own family name but soon progressed to friends’ family names and then to any name that might be familiar - by whatever connection. During this process the realisation dawned that I was related, by shared values and common ground, to all of those on the list and that I was myself a part of the continuous process called ‘history’. I understood that the names were posted in order to give each their individual place in that same history and that the names stood for real men of my father’s and grandfathers’ generation who had died in circumstances I could only imagine.
At Tower Hill in London there is a similar monument (it also has a World War Two “extension”, designed by Sir Edward Maufe, in the form of a sunken, walled garden) except that this one is dedicated to the civilian, merchant seamen who perished. And, while the backdrop history of the wars may be the same, the listings themselves hint at a broader picture. Many of the names are more exotic or foreign-sounding than the typically British names of the period which suggests that they may have been recruited in the faraway ports of a once sprawling maritime empire. Their names are grouped under the ships they sailed on and the ports to which those ships were registered. The names of the ships may not be familiar but the ports - such as Aberdeen, West Hartlepool, Belfast, Liverpool, Cardiff, Hull, Glasgow, Grimsby, Troon, Scarborough, London and so on - certainly are - although most are now shadows of what they used to be. Once thronged with ships and ship-building, they are now sidelined by containerisation and airfreight, their industrial expertise all but lost, searching for other reasons to be.
I was at the Tower Hill Memorial on a sunny afternoon when the place, because it has a tiny park attached, is a magnet for office workers on their breaks and for tourists hovering around the Tower of London. The tourists did not stop to read the cast-bronze plaques fixed to the stonework. They ambled past them, wide-eyed for the big picture, stopping only briefly to photograph each other with the Tower in the background. The office workers read their books and papers, ate their snacks and closed their eyes to look up to the sun for a recharge before heading back to work.
The tourists and the lunchtime solace-seekers may be forgiven their nonchalance. The owner of the land, Tower Hamlets Council, may not. It has agreed to rent the park to a hospitality company who will cover it with a marquee for four weeks in the run-up to Christmas. There they will host lavish office parties for the very City firms who have wrecked our economy and will now be encouraged to dance on our graves.