Studio: Liam O’Connor’s British Normandy Memorial

A dignified classical design respects its setting and the memory of wartime sacrifice

This article is taken from the June 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Commemorative statues, memorials and the like are often targeted by destructive forces, both in terms of physical attacks and ideological objections raised against architectural or artistic styles. Architect Liam O’Connor’s design of the memorial in Green Park, London, commemorating the men of RAF Bomber Command who perished in the Second World War (1) was opposed from several positions, including the dreary old chestnut that any Classical work of architecture was not “of our own time”.

However, it is a fine Classical solution, predominantly Grecian in origin (so respectful of Decimus Burton’s great screen at Hyde Park Corner, of 1824-5). O’Connor’s latest great work of commemoration is the British Normandy Memorial in France (3), commissioned by the Normandy Memorial Trust, a registered charity set up in 2016 to create a fitting tribute to those who gave their lives in Operation Overlord. The British government made two grants, totalling £27 million, while a further £2 million was raised by public subscription.

Various locations were considered in the Sword Beach area and in Ouistreham, but the architect pushed for a more appropriate site. A 60-acre plot commanding a breathtaking unbroken view over Gold Beach at Ver-sur-Mer was selected in September 2017. The site comprised 15 agricultural holdings that had not been developed since Gallo-Roman times — an ancient temple was discovered during a pre-construction archæological dig.

The design comprises a matrix of architectural elements joined by a simplified type of pergola-ambulatory, suggesting a kind of open, unenclosed cloister, allowing uninterrupted views of the sea (4), a powerful reminder of D-Day and the arrival of the massive fleets comprising the invasion-force on the morning of 6 June 1944.

Central to the design was the problem of how to include the 22,442 names of those who made the ultimate sacrifice on D-Day and the Battle of Normandy. Richard Kindersley, one of England’s greatest letter-carvers whose father, David (1915-95), was taught by Eric Gill, designed three letter-faces: one for the names; one for the quotations from Winston Churchill, Charles De Gaulle, and Bernard Montgomery; and one for texts giving information about the Battle.

Four sculptors were also appointed: Lisburn-born David Williams-Ellis for the main sculptural group of three larger-than-life bronze figures (6); the American Charles Bergen for the “Waymarker” depictions of events on the other invasion beaches; and the French Christophe Charbonnel and Valentine Herrenschmidt, who collaborated on the Wreath and Shield sculpture at the very heart of the memorial. A modest and separate monument (5), consisting of interconnected stone arches and panels (2), commemorates the 25,000 civilians who perished during the Battle, and hundreds of trees were planted in what was farmland to create a pleasing setting for the memorial.

The architectural language chosen by O’Connor is a very stripped, simplified, almost minimalist columnar-and-trabeated Classicism, with very subtle nods to some great monuments of Classical Antiquity. The material used is Burgundian limestone (some 3,500 tons of it), precision-cut into large blocks and laid with very fine joints in lime-mortar: the architecture and the engineering are one coherent whole, unifying the entire design, enhanced by the Italian porphyry slabs and setts laid in complex and very precise geometrical patterns carefully related to the structures that rise above.

The result is a powerful, coherent, beautifully crafted memorial of serene beauty that has found its place in the landscape, anchored to it with respect for and enhancement of the site. O’Connor and his team have produced a monument which rises to the solemnity of its purpose. The architect’s sensitive and intelligent grasp of the myriad possibilities available within the language of Classicism has been admirably demonstrated: his creation speaks eloquently to us in a way no Modernist could ever hope to manage. 

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