Cemeteries of the Great War by Sir Edwin Lutyens 10.08.11

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How does a nation bury over 1 million of its dead? That question faced the Imperial War Graves Commission and its architects in 1918, as the First World War came to an end. It was a question that went to the heart of European culture. But this moment of memorialising for all time the victims of the war also happened when architecture was on the cusp of the great change brought by modernism. The resulting work, consisting of 967 cemeteries in Belgium and France, 
is one of the epic feats of architecture and landscape in the history of the continent, done against a political background so charged that it's astonishing that it happened at all, let alone with such remarkable sobriety and beauty.

Jeroen Geurst's book, Cemeteries of the Great War by Sir Edwin Lutyens, documents in unprecedented detail the 140 cemeteries designed by Lutyens, in drawings, photographs and short commentaries. There's no justification in the book as to why Geurst, a partner of Geurst & Schulze Architects and associate professor at TU Delft in the Netherlands, chose to focus on Lutyens' work exclusively. It would seem to be a matter of taste: Geurst clearly thinks that the cemeteries realised by Lutyens and his assistants are the greater architectural achievements, and he's probably right.

But it is also a matter of giving the book some limits. The four architects (Lutyens, Charles Holden, Reginald Blomfield and Lutyens' nemesis Herbert Baker) who worked on the cemeteries used standard components and obeyed the same rules, but the great achievement, which Geurst continually points out, was the subtlety of each cemetery's individual relationship with its site and the graves it accommodates. Geurst's work of observing, recording and making correspondences between these 140 sites took 10 years, and the precision of his observations shows an intense, first-hand engagement.

Geurst is at his most comfortable when dissecting the cemeteries, and breaking them down into their constituent parts. Chapter headings like "The Graves" and "The Greenery" give you an idea of how this works, and make you pity his wife, who, Geurst says in the introduction, spent holidays visiting cemetery after cemetery. His close attention to detail, though, leads to some real insights. One of my favourites was his casual observation of how coping stones and steps are used to mediate topography and to create a relationship between materials and between the cemetery and surrounding landscape. The principal image of the cemeteries in my mind's eye has always been long, low brick and stone walls with white stone copings – Geurst's obsessive photography shows you why that visual language is so powerful.

But however talented Geurst is as an observer, he is no historian. The narrative sections at the beginning of the book feel like they were written in chunks over a long period of time: they are repetitive and, because of the portentous use of the present tense, needlessly confusing. It suffers badly in comparison to Gavin Stamp's masterful The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme (Profile Books, 2007). Geurst's narrative is indebted to Stamp's, but inferior, often unsourced and offering nothing new. If you want the final word on how Lutyens' work on the cemeteries played out against a background of national and international politics, his family life and his philosophical and religious thinking, read Stamp's book.

This one, with its studious, serious serifs, has a kind of jargony vagueness in the text that is intensely irritating and at odds with the visual presentation. I'm aware that I read it in translation, but Geurst desperately needed a better editor.

But, let's face it, this is a book aimed at architects, and most of them won't read the text at all. The huge value of the book is to take seriously an overlooked chapter of 20th-century British architectural history, and expose it to a thorough taxonomy. I'm sure it will prompt many trips to these sites, and perhaps among those visitors will be someone who can tell us why Lutyens' work is so important. It will take more than a dissection, though. Lutyens' understanding of his art, the ritual meanings of death and burial, and the unprecedented scale of the event he was commemorating merit an accompanying, philosophical work to bring them to light.

Cemeteries of the Great War by Sir Edwin Lutyens by Jeroen Geurst. 010 Publishers. €39.50

 

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Cemeteries of the Great War by Sir Edwin Lutyens

 

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Kieran Long

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Geurst clearly thinks that the cemeteries realised by Lutyens are the greater architectural achievements, and he's probably right

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