Victoria Tower Gardens Holocaust Memorial: a landscape architect’s objection
Victoria Tower Gardens UK National Holocaust Memorial
Following the refusal of planning permission by Westminster City Council, an inquiry into the applicant’s appeal starts on Tuesday 6th October 2020 and is expected to last for 4 weeks. Here is my letter of objection (with apologies for my trumpet blowing, which is said to be valued by assessors). You can email an objection with the subject line Appeal 3240661 Victoria Tower Gardens to Helen.firstname.lastname@example.org ] Here is my letter:
Dear Helen Skinner
Proposed Holocaust Memorial in Victoria Tower Gardens
I wish to object to the proposed memorial for the reasons detailed in this letter and summarised at the foot of the letter. They arise from my having lived in London and known Victoria Tower Gardens for 50 years, from being a professional member (now retired) of the Royal Town Planning Institute and the Landscape Institute, from having written a report on Urban Parks (1992), with Robert Holden, for the Landscape Institute, from having produced a report on A Green Strategy for London, (1990, for the London Planning Advisory Committee, a predecessor of the GLA), from writing an article on ‘Open space planning in London: From standards per 1000 to green strategy’, Town Planning Review, Vol. 63, No. 4 (OCTOBER 1992), pp. 365-386, from having published 6 books (on urban design, landscape planning and garden history), and from having made two Youtube videos about the current proposal [ https://youtu.be/JNKtPuKkSc8 and https://youtu.be/mfWH7_SWoZM ]. I also edit the Landscape Architects Association website. My reasons for objecting to the proposed Holocaust Memorial follow.
Insufficient thought was given to the choice of site for the proposed memorial. The proposers’ seem to have reasoned that because the site is in public ownership the responsible department can do whatever it wishes with its own property.
The consideration of alternatives is an integral aspect of the environmental assessment procedure and for a high profile proposal of this nature special attention should have been given at the initial planning stage, to the landscape and visual impact of building the Memorial in different locations. The UK Landscape Institute publishes a book on how to do this. As mentioned in one of my videos, the Garden Bridge proposal was rejected largely because it was in the wrong place. Members of the public have much knowledge and strong views on contextual factors, including heritage, scenic quality, ecology, hydrology, sensitivity to change, pedestrian movements, views and related issues.
Surveys of contextual issues have been an aspect of British town and country planning since its inception in the first decade of the 20th century. Sir Patrick Geddes, one of the profession’s founders and leading theorists, argued for thorough surveys and for decisions to be taken in the context of regularly updated Cities Exhibitions.
In the 1960s this aspect of planning became known as public participation. Today, it is practiced as consultation which often amounts to little more than giving the public a say before proceeding with the original plan. This appears to be what happened for the proposed development in Victoria Tower Gardens. The public should also have been told what alternative locations were considered and given an opportunity to participate in the decision making. Public projects must have public support.
The heritage importance of Victoria Tower Gardens
The Gardens are one of the few examples in London of a Victorian public garden to have survived with few changes to their classic simplicity. It has great trees, public walks (often described as ‘promenades’ when they were made), soothing grass, some flowers, some statues and some other features.
In 1833 a House of Commons Select Committee on Public Walks was charged to “consider the best means of securing open spaces in the immediate vicinity of populous towns, as public walks calculated to promote the health and comfort of the inhabitants.” This led to Britain becoming the first country to make public parks for public use, as distinct from the continental practice of making royal gardens and granting public access under certain circumstances – male visitors had to wear a sword when visiting Versailles. There can be no better place for a well-conserved heritage public garden than beside Britain’s Parliament.
The visual quality of Victoria Tower Gardens
The planners of the Holocaust Memorial may have seen Victoria Tower Gardens as ‘just grass’ and with visual quality comparable to that of a football pitch (which, in the years after the First World War became a common use of public parks). Should this be what was thought, it was a fundamental mistake.
The Gardens are a brilliantly romantic composition of buildings, trees, other planting, other structures, walks, steps, sculpture and the Buxton Memorial, which formerly stood in Parliament Square and which celebrates the successful campaign for slavery to be abolished. This was a very great achievement and nothing should be done to encroach on its splendour.
Views in to the site
Seen from Westminster Bridge, the visual context of ‘the mother of parliaments’ includes the line of London planes arching over the Thames, with the Victoria Tower a link between ‘urb’ and ‘rus’. Should any of the trees die because of the underground development it would be a blow to London – and a slur on the Memorial. Whatever assurances may be given by arboriculturalists, it is not a risk that should be taken.
Views out from the site
The views out from Victoria Tower Gardens are as romantic as they are rich in solace. Seen through the branches and leaves, the Thames has something of its pre-Roman glory. The proximity of Westminster Hall, marked by the Gothic character of the Victoria Tower, is a reminder that when the Normans began the development of Westminster it was a country retreat, well away from the City of London. Henry VIII appreciated this aspect of Westminster when establishing what are now London’s Royal Parks. Victoria Tower Gardens, though not part of his hunting reserve, is now managed by the Royal Parks Agency and has more of its late medieval character than St James’s Park.
Unlike the Central London Royal Parks, Victoria Tower Gardens does not form part of London’s pedestrian circulation network: people do not use the Gardens as a direct route to somewhere else. They come for physical and spiritual ‘health and comfort’.
Its two ‘public walks’ offer the quiet solace of views over grass and views over water. As shown on the development proposal submitted by the applicants, the main feature of the Gardens will become a ‘pedestrian superhighway’ with wide grass verges. With the projected traffic of 1 million visitors/year, the solace of the gardens would be destroyed. Mothers would be in fear of losing their children. Sunbathers would become too self-conscious to relax. MPs would not find a private place for sensitive discussions or TV interviews. The old and the unemployed would lose their retreat. The raised river-view seats would be dominated by tourists taking selfies of each other.
As one of the most-visited tourist destinations in Europe, Westminster has become a very busy place, its bustle itself an attraction. Victoria Tower Gardens is a most-welcome contrast to the crowds and should be protected from being overwhelmed.
The perspective drawing submitted by the design team is significantly misleading with regard to pedestrians. It shows approximately 100 people using the greenspace and 10 people on the new path to the Memorial (and they look more like local residents and local workers than visitors from afar). If the Memorial attracts 1 million visitors/year the percentage of local users is more likely to be 10% than the 90% shown on the illustration.
Building a Holocaust Memorial in Victoria Tower Gardens would change the public image and character of the space from green to grey.The distinction is set out as follows in Chapter 16 of my 1996 book, City as landscape:
Grey space is solemn. It surrounds tombs and memorials, encouraging us to reflect on the transience of human life and the glory of the departed.
Green space is made by mixing yellow with blue, to calm the diversity of the yellow and restrain the sublimity of the blue. It should be relaxing in every way. City dwellers love green space, of course. Amid the noise and stress of city life, it’s wonderful to come across an island of green. But one does not want every public open space in every city to be green.
The space outside the Palace of Westminster can be characterised as Red Space:
Red space is exciting. As blood is red, the colour symbolizes excitement in every country.
There is a danger that space between the entrance to Victoria Tower Gardens and the obelisk on Lambeth Bridge would become red space instead of the somber grey space which befits the terrible tragedy it commemorates. Tourists enjoy eating, drinking, joking and buying things.
Respect for the donors
In 1879, WH Smith, of newsagent fame, gave £1000 and parliament gave another £1400 for ‘enclosing and laying out for the use of the public the ground to the south of the Houses of Parliament which has recently been embanked’. Previously, the land was unembanked and in commercial use. The original design was modified in 1914 and 1955 but it remains very much as the original donors intended and should not be purloined for a use which has no connection with promoting the ‘health and comfort of the inhabitants”.
Respect for the local community
Victoria Tower Gardens was planned and designed as a community space, as it is still used. Members of the community welcome visitors and are proud to be guardians of the very special character they come to enjoy.
The Holocaust was a horrific event of world significance, filling us all with irremediable sadness. Building a Holocaust Memorial on this site would forever change its character from a community space into a world space. It would change a place of joy into a place of sorrow.
We all have sadness in our lives but Horace’s advice to “seize the day” (carpe diem) is written on garden sundials for good reason.
The architecture and landscape architecture of the proposed memorial
Both are of high design quality. Yet both are hostile to the context of Victoria Tower Gardens.
Design historians will probably classify the design character as Postmodern. Its neighbours have a Gothic character (the Palace of Westminster) a Neoclassical character (the apartment blocks) or a Modernist character (the North Wing of St Thomas’s Hospital). I am not suggesting the design should adopt these styles but the designers should explain how the style was chosen, what it symbolises and in what respects their design approach is intended to fit in with neighbouring structures.
Much of the proposed accommodation is underground, which has its own symbolism, but the parts which are above ground have a strong character, which I would describe as ‘snarling’. The Corten steel teeth at the entrance to the underground chambers can be seen as aggressive.
The grass mound which, like gums, slopes down from the “teeth” threatens to engulf the Buxton Memorial. There is also a serious arboricultural concern that however much care is lavished on these ‘gums’, and on the structures they conceal, some of the great London plane trees will suffer terminal damage. Their roots cannot grow south, because of the impermeable paving and granite Embankment. They are dependent on the grassed area for their nutrition. Building an underground structure will be harmful and raising the level of the grass will be harmful.
The ‘sombre’ character referred to in the design brief is intrinsic to the nature of a Holocaust Memorial and very well expressed by the Caprice (by Atar Arad – Ron Arad’s brother) used in the design team’s video presentation of the Concept behind UK Holocaust Memorial. But the choice of music is as misleading as the perspective sketch of the design. Placing a memorial in the Gardens would confer tension and darkness, especially with the accommodation raising an angry face from a hidden lair.
Victoria Tower Gardens provide Central London with a romantically calm greenspace with a lawn, sculpture, children’s play, two great avenues of London plane trees, beguiling views of the Thames and a spectacular view of the Palace of Westminster. They are appreciated by tourists and much used by office workers and local residents.
Though opposed to building ever-more memorials on Royal Parks’ land, I accept that building underground is better than building above ground.
For this project, there are arboricultural risks, the symbolism is poorly judged and the landscape/heritage context has been completely ignored.
My personal view is that the evil of the Holocaust should not be buried. It should be exposed to the light of day, to the four winds and to the purity of falling rain. The organisers should look for an appropriate site.