Australian War Memorial

A valuable and historic national project is treated with solemnity and respect while embracing context and symbolism.

National serviceman Mervyn William Boardman stands beside a statue of Sir Edward “Weary” Dunlop.

National serviceman Mervyn William Boardman stands beside a statue of Sir Edward “Weary” Dunlop.

Image: Brett Boardman

On 8 September I attended the dedication of the new memorial for the Nashos at the Australian War Memorial. My son Brett was photographing the ceremony and building works and encouraged me to be there. Thousands of us marched up Anzac Parade to the memorial, which is prominently located near the entrance of the main building. The retired General Peter Cosgrove spoke movingly during the dedication ceremony about our service and I felt enormously proud to have been a part of the whole Nasho scheme. After all the groups of families and friends had dispersed, I had the chance for some quiet reflection with smaller groups near the memorial’s centrepiece.

“The quiet sound of the running water, the flat surfaces covered in wreaths and the three emblems of our defence services strategically placed around the overflowing bowl create a peaceful place, allowing a flood of memories to return – those who died during their service, those who have died since and close friends whom I still have fifty-four years later. The Nashos, our families, their children and all Australians can at last be reminded very publicly of our contribution. As a national serviceman, I wish to express my thanks to all concerned for the decision to create this place and its excellent design and execution.”
—Mervyn William Boardman, A220079 RAAF, Point Cook Victoria.

National Service Memorial and Courtyard

War memorials address subjects of great gravitas and the design of the National Service Memorial and Courtyard, the central feature of the Eastern Precinct, respectfully responds to these themes with subtlety, sensitivity and strength.

The memorial fountain allows for quiet reflection. It uses recycled water.

The memorial fountain allows for quiet reflection. It uses recycled water.

Image: Brett Boardman

According to historian Ken Inglis, it is only in the last two centuries of human history that memorials have represented the human cost of war with the eloquence previously reserved for celebrating victory. Previously, regular soldiers were “buried anonymously, mere compost for the cause which they willingly or unwillingly served.”1 Contemporary memorials like this one commemorate the efforts of ordinary people who serve in war, creating a space to remember, acknowledge, celebrate, mourn and reflect. The formal courtyard and fountain are dedicated to all Australian National Servicemen (over 290,000 in total) and in memory of those who died. National servicemen were conscripted between 1951 and 1972, including some who served in the Vietnam War.

This memorial represents the wishes of veterans themselves. The idea of a memorial fountain originated with the National Servicemen’s Association of Australia. The Association worked closely with the Australian War Memorial (AWM), raising funds, consulting stakeholders and providing advice on the design. Significantly, Johnson Pilton Walker’s (JPW) design was approved by National Service associations throughout Australia. Few changes to the original design were requested, an indication that early consultation and a clear brief enabled the designers to create an appropriate response.

The National Service Memorial and Courtyard is tucked immediately east of the main war memorial building, transforming an area formerly used for bus parking and circulation. The formal courtyard consists of a symmetrical cruciform arrangement of paving, seating and grass areas leading to a low memorial fountain.

The treatment of this space is deceptively simple and precise. As with the rest of its AWM work, JPW merges architecture and landscape, detail and context, practical needs and abstract symbolism. Proportion, geometry and materiality are all carefully chosen in response to site context, pragmatic needs and symbolic function.

National servicemen and their families and friends gather in the courtyard.

National servicemen and their families and friends gather in the courtyard.

Image: Brett Boardman

The courtyard seeks to function as an intimate space for quiet, individual reflection as well as a ceremonial space for commemorative events – for example, the dedication ceremony, attended by over 3,000 people. To achieve this flexibility, the space has a double enclosure: the whole courtyard area is bounded by box hedges on three sides at human height and an inner row of low hedges and seating surrounds the fountain at its centre. These proportions and repeated geometries mediate between the imposing backdrop of the existing memorial building, the adjacent open space of the new cafe, the gravel forecourt on the other side, and the relatively modest size of the fountain itself. The formal geometry is consistent with the architecture surrounding it, successfully linking the new memorial to its context. Three asymmetrically sited trees (Eucalyptus pauciflora) give relief to this formality and tie the courtyard to its broader landscape setting of nearby eucalyptus lawns and the backdrop of Mount Ainslie. Materials were selected to be in sympathy with the context too, with bronze, sandstone, granite and pencil pines all referencing existing architecture and memorials on site.

The centrepiece fountain uses an uncluttered geometry of triangle, circle and square, so iconic it has been used as the image for a commemorative fifty cent coin. The high quality and attention to detail evident here befit the site and setting (especially since its integrated design merges object and space). From a distance, the fountain sits quietly at the centre of the courtyard: low, heavy, solid, human scale. As one approaches, the sound of the water intensifies, spilling over from a bronze vessel into the polished granite base on which it appears to float. Water wells up invisibly from within and overflows, a slow, constant source pushing to the surface and emptying away in a forceful gravitational cascade. The water flow has been visually and acoustically perfected: a bronze bead was prototyped and refined to achieve a stream of water at the exact desired angle, the volume of water and a hidden echo chamber of granite designed to create the right acoustic environment. Computerized operation allows for the adjustment of water levels as needed. On a practical level, the fountain uses recycled water and has been designed to remain attractive even if water restrictions make it necessary to have no water flow at all.

This memorial shies away from directly confronting or challenging Australia’s national service policies, but it nevertheless makes a powerful gesture of commemoration which can be read in different ways. There is no explicit postmodern ambiguity or spatial complexity, no triumphant statuary (the national servicemen did not want this) or even names to emotively humanize the space. Yet in spite of this – or perhaps because of it – the space invites subjective interpretation and contemplation of its meaning. According to JPW, the tripartite use of materials and geometries symbolizes navy/army/air force and water/stone/sky respectively. To me the courtyard and its overflowing anti-heroic fountain have a pathos, an almost apologetic feel. I couldn’t help thinking of the fate of those people forced to go to war because of a combination of government policy and the random “human lottery”2 of their birth date. To veterans, school kids or international visitors it can mean completely different things. The design creates an atmospheric space where multiple interpretations and reflections are possible, a dignified landscape where less can say more.

Site development 2001–2010

The Eastern Precinct Development at the Australian War Memorial by JPW integrates a range of landscape and architectural elements within a nationally significant heritage landscape. The Eastern Precinct marks the culmination of a comprehensive site development plan first developed in 2001 and reviewed in 2005, which identified three stages of implementation across the AWM site: the Western Precinct, the Parade Ground and the current works. This precinct includes the National Service Memorial and Courtyard, the cafe and forecourt and a new basement car park, as well as restored eucalyptus lawns, coach parking and service spaces.

The symmetrical courtyard consists of levelled seating, paving and grass, leading to  the memorial fountain.

The symmetrical courtyard consists of levelled seating, paving and grass, leading to the memorial fountain.

Image: Brett Boardman

The relationships between functional drivers and symbolic power, landscape and architecture, site and context, quality of materials and quality of experience are all well considered. This high quality design resolution can, in part, be attributed to the relationship between designer and client. During the past decade JPW has enjoyed a close and ongoing collaboration with AWM staff. For the client, this meant investing time in the process, as described by Stewart Mitchell, head of Buildings and Services at AWM.

“We all put a lot of time in [and] we know each other very well. We spent a lot of time just talking about what our expectations were. I never felt like I was just ‘the client,’ I felt as though I made a real contribution to the design. Because of the ten years of planning, the concept [for the Eastern Precinct] was in everybody’s minds for a long time, so when it came to putting it onto paper we all knew the direction we were heading in.”

From JPW director Richard Johnson’s perspective, the “huge responsibility” of designing for the needs of this major cultural institution and its extensive group of stakeholders, including veterans, was assisted by the clarity of purpose and leadership shown by AWM management and staff.

Stairs to the east of the courtyard.

Stairs to the east of the courtyard.

Image: Brett Boardman

“To get a good result you need a good client. They have a very clear mission which is very clearly articulated. Management wanted to be involved exploring options and debating,” Richard says.

This fruitful relationship meant JPW was well placed to resolve the complexities of a project which combined landscape planning and management, architecture and memorial design. They established a landscape strategy and principles which guided individual projects, with the team reviewing and refining the work at each stage. Such shared learning and understanding has resulted in a commemorative landscape which can be managed and maintained as intended, an important consideration if design integrity is to be sustained.

The robust plan has ensured that cumulative changes have contributed to a broader vision for this landscape – each of the elements within the precinct is a well-handled piece of design in its own right, and together these form a cohesive and dignified landscape experience. This process also yielded projects which came in on time and under budget.

One of the most complex elements of the Eastern Precinct, according to the client, was “to get a building [the cafe] which could sit in this place” by being compatible with the scale of the existing memorial building and the landscape setting of eucalyptus lawns, as well as the backdrop of Mount Ainslie. JPW responded with a concept requiring major earthworks, including removing a hill, and Johnson praised the client for “having the bravery to support this design approach and championing the concept when engaging with stakeholders and authorities.” AWM is pleased with the result. Mitchell remarks, “What is outstanding about the architecture and the landscape is that it looks as if it’s always been here.”

Overall, the work seamlessly addresses the functional as well as the symbolic demands of the site, illustrating what an interdisciplinary design team and client can achieve when given enough resources (time as well as budget) to achieve a refined result.

1. K.S. Inglis, Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape. Third edition (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2008). Page 14.
2. National Servicemen’s Association of Australia website – www.nashos.org.au

Credits

Architect
Johnson Pilton Walker
Sydney, NSW, Australia
Project Team
Richard Johnson, Kiong Lee, Supinder Matharu, Sophie Blain, Andrew Christie, Adam Deutsh, Jorg Hartig, Mat Howard, Matthias Knauss, Adrian Pilton, Ben Rainsford, Richard Rowell
Consultants
Access consultant Eric Martin & Associates
BCA consultant Fire Safety Science
Builder PBS Building
Civil and structural engineer Taylor Thomson Whitting
Cost consultant Coffey Projects
Heritage consultant Godden Mackay Logan
Kitchen consultant Cini Little
Project management Coffey Projects
Project team Maggie Liang
Services engineer WSP Lincolne Scott
Traffic engineers WSP Parsons Brinkerhoff
Water feature specialist contractor Waterforms International
Site details
Location Treloar Crescent,  Campbell,  Canberra,  ACT,  Australia
Site type Urban
Category Commercial / public buildings, Landscape / urban design
Type Culture / arts
Project Details
Status Built
Design, documentation 9 months
Construction 12 months
Website http://www.awm.gov.au/

Source

Review

Published online: 28 Apr 2016
Words: Nicole Porter
Images: Brett Boardman

Issue

Landscape Architecture Australia, November 2010

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