Architecture and journey of memory: Semiotic through fragmentation and choreography in the South Australian Garden of Remembrance
Author: Fatimah Al-Ameen
MA student in Architecture
The University of Melbourne, Australia
“war memorial is a site of symbolic exchange where the living admits a degree of indebtedness to the fallen that can never be fully discharged.”
The idea of memorialisation sprawled post-world war I. World war I ended as all wars with great human casualty and tragedies. Its grief hunted all families at the time. The memorials aided in recovery and process of healing. With the development of the architectural language in semiotic meaning, soon many memorial sites were seen throughout Europe and soon around the world. The South Australian Garden of Remembrance (SAGR) erected in 1988 in Adelaide Centennial Park Cemetery is the focus of this essay. This memorial was officially opened by the then Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, the Honourable Ben Humphreys MP. It was designed to eternalise the memories and the sacrifices of the South Australian soldiers who fought bravely during world war I and II. The memorial uses semiotic, which refers to the idea of signs and symbols where one thing can represent the essence of another thing.
This essay will explore the idea of semiotic through fragmentation and choreography in the SAGR and will seek its application in understanding the process of meaning-making in architecture today. Review of the literature was directed to examine the architectural and design theories influencing the design of this memorial site. In addition, historical architectural theories of structuralism period will be discussed to understand the origin of meaning-making. In the design of SAGR, the architects had aimed for a simple symbolic memorial where it was to be visited by the general public. However, symbols utilised in the SAGR are challenging to recognise without an understanding of the historical events and the architectural language. These hidden gems are exhibited through the replicas of army equipment, the triumph triangle front, a waterway, free-standing walls that are all strategically placed in an open landscape. Overall these features deliver a sense of patriotism while eternalising the memories of the fallen.
Across the Australian landmark, the landscape, buildings, cemeteries and parks, there are many statues, texts and objects that been strategically placed attempting to remind the public of a memory. “Lest we forget”, is the phrase signified and eternalised the Remembrance Day and the sacrifices of the ANZAC Day. The theory of how this phrase or the red poppies became to represent the essence of the stories of the war is, in fact, a new language for communication that was derived from the post-Modernism thinkers and gradually integrated into art and architectural theories. Theories of semiotic and sign later developed and had been recognised as an architectural language.
Modern architecture had its peak in functional performance and operational methodology in design, where a design solution of form follows function was a receipt for any functional built form without any arbitrary alternative organization. However, early Post-Modernism and structuralism was the beginning of the thoughts and notions about the meaning in architecture. In fact, Post-modern critics and thinkers had more than before attempted to discover the ideology of meaning. Among them, George Baird rose the early structuralism insight about meaning in architecture. Baird wrote the first article in English describing the theory of signs in architecture proposing that a building is not only physical support, but the relic carries a meaning within. It was first interpreted as a new and exclusive monumentality. It was surprising for many people in the field because like many others Baird was a functional architect who believed in machine-like and meaning-free architecture. However, later, this idea that architecture designed intentionally to deliver a meaning sprawled within the functionalism and other architects to an extent that there were attempts to assign a meaning to the past buildings and to find a story within their design. Geoffrey Broadbent in his article explains that there were believes that it already been told by past architects such as Le Corbusier, Mies and Gropius that architecture should not be solely the matter of adding stuff to the face of the building. He argues that there were many buildings that initially designed meaning-free, but with the idea of signs, those buildings been assigned different meanings as Pevsner states that “every building creates associations in the mind of the beholder whether the architect wanted it or not.”. Therefore, it is better to understand the buildings if it has given meaning by the architects themselves. Later, the theories of sign and signifier were further developed and started to question, how can one thing, a word, a form, a picture or a building represent another thing? This idea called Semiotic.
Semiotic can in many ways reflect the memories of the past. South Australian Garden of Remembrance (SARG) in Adelaide is a war memorial that is the focus of this essay. It is a war memorial that rests in the heart of many who had visited it. The simulation tactics that have been used to restore the people, war and site memories is truly a remarkable design filled with semiotics.
Memorial architecture is influenced by different cultures and religious traditions, and as a result, the commemoration era is also varied with different nations. However, war memorials appear to have a shared resemblance in which they have been the symbol of national pride. Yet, war memorials, signify a different oasis for those who had experienced the trauma of wars directly or have lost their loved ones in wars. Therefore, it is a place to grieve and resemble the feeling of sadness, loneliness, respect and remembrance. Through the study of different memorials, it is noticeable that to define a meaning, one should look around, through the landscape, within the movements, or by reading the texts. As Michael Hays describes the war memorial as a “site of symbolic exchange where the living admits a degree of indebtedness to the fallen that can never be fully discharged”. SARG signifies all these values and is a suitable example of a war memorial to explore the architectural language of semiotic design.
South Australian Garden of Remembrance is a war memorial established on March 1988 in the Centennial Park Cemetery in Adelaide. It is one of the ten Office of Australian War Graves (OAWG) Garden of Remembrance sites around Australia, to represent the lives of the servicemen and women during World War I and II. Its design is distinctive as an Australian way of official commemoration. It embodies names of approximately 18,500 South Australia servicemen and women whose sacrificed lives were symbolised on the 18,500 plaques that distributed on 36 featured walls. Some of its features include:
- 1) the replicas of army equipment
- 2) the triumph triangle front
- 3) a waterway that leads to a pool
- 4) free-standing walls all strategically places in an open landscape.
These features have a connecting relationship to the memories of the Australian Defence force and veteran and signify their stories. The idea of semiotic has been referenced in the SARG through a few themes, which includes:
- 1) repetition
- 2) fragmentation
- 3) materiality
- 4) choreography
- 5) landscape.
This study will focus only on fragmentation and choreography themes and will explore its relation to the process of meaning-making in architecture.
Fragmentation in architecture can have different meanings. It might refer to multiple individual items that been placed randomly on the site, or it might refer to the idea of discontinuity and being unfinished like how Eisenman describes the fragmentation as it being undone to be accessible or it might refer to a text or writing. Upon arriving in the site, the first thing that gets the attention is the fraction of aeroplane propeller, a ship’s wheel and a gun carriage wheel pieces that been planted on different direction but very close to the memorial. The replicas of Army equipment are symbols for the three services fought during world war including the Airforce, Navy and Army. Based on Peirce’s term, a symbol described as a sign that carries a general meaning. It feels that the architect consciously used an explicit metaphor because the memorial is not subjective to a particular group and it needs to deliver meaning straight forward. Similar symbols have been used for memorials in different places. A famous symbol would be the cross of sacrifice, that symbolises the story of Christ and been placed on top of graves or in a church. This fragmentation of objects around the site also reminds us of the mess and the rubble been fallen here and there and represent the tension of that time.
By the entrance of the Garden and in the middle and at the end, the triumph triangle of the ancient classic takes the eye. But the question is why use ancient roman while the war was in a different era? To answer this question, we must refer to the ideas of post-modernism. Unlike modernity and its rejection of the history and the past theories, Post-Modernism had a turn back to those traditions and started to implement the ideas of the ancient classism in its forms. That was when the idea of memorialisation came to life to remember and influence from the stories of the past. Therefore, I believe the use of these classical forms in this memorial also further emphasising the idea of memorialization. However, architects in the most recent memorials happen to avoid using fragments of the classical norms unless it is representing that era. The Australian War Memorial in Canberra also reflects the ancient classic forms of arcs within its commemorative courtyard.
The main feature of the memorial is its walls and its layout on the site designed to point out its feeling of discontinuity and fragmentation. Each wall carrying hundreds of plaques stands by itself unconnected and unattached to the other. The wall itself signifies the war trenches, acts as a barrier, like something strong that can be hidden behind or lean on it as, war trenches were the place for rest, to fill the gun or hide. However, the discontinuity of the walls and its disconnection by the water stream in the middle looks intentional. In one hand, it might represent each individual battle that the Australian army fought during the world wars.
On the other hand, the singularity of the trenches and its separation from the rest of the troops might be referenced in which illustrate a sense of weakness and loneliness. These expressions might be predicted or intentionally designed by the architect and may not. In comparison to this memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington is an example that has a different application with the wall as a war trench. The Vietnam memorial has a single, continuous wall that starts with the entrance and follows the paths with no disruption. As Blair in his paper explains that, “visitors can leave the site with their views fundamentally unaffected”. The wall in this example is the symbol of unity and does not represent an individual veteran in its iconic form. It demonstrates that it served the Vietnam Veterans as a unified group.
The phenomenon of architectural meaning is understood as a sign language. Where something signifies a conceptual form of another thing and will give it a presence. The material, form, scale or any other object of the building can act as a signifier where it signifies, for instance, the context, the feeling of the movement of the sign. In other words, what we see of a building, represents an essence and has another meaning. It took so long to get to this argument that architecture has its own language of communication through sign and symbol. This argument challenges the modernism phenomenon of form follows function and started to look beyond the physical material. Furthermore, with post-structuralism and appearance of deconstructivism another notion about meaning in architecture rose which challenges yet supplements the structuralism ideas. It believed that the meaning is not fixed to an object and is subject to deferral. That means there might be more than one signifier and signified. It is believed to understand that, what is created in architecture should not be understood as a simple metaphor of architecture language but as a creation out of a complex argument.
As documented, the application of Semiotic in understanding and delivering meaning in architecture can be interpreted in many ways. Fragmentation by itself has a variety of explanations and all might be true. Semiotic through choreography seems to have quit connection to our case study. The followings will explain how choreography helps in understanding the process of meaning-making in South Australian Garden of Remembrance. Walking through the reception, passing by the small pool, individual 6 feet walls stand separately a fair distance apart from one another. Each wall carries numbers of plaques with names of those who died in subsequent conflicts and those have been related to war service. The application of walls continues and follows the slope of the site until it disappears. Looking from the top it seems it follows normality and order, however, by walking in between the walls, there is a feeling of movement, ups and downs, a choreography.
If one follows the plaques and names on each wall, it must follow the rhythm of the memorial as well. In addition to the movement, the sounds of water also get far and close which emphasises and drives the movement. According to how Broadbent describes the term Semiotic, it can be said that here the idea of choreography has been signified to remind us of the movements occurred during the war. All the ups and downs, moving from within the trenches and the forwards and backwards may have been pragmatics Semiotic method. Peirce defined the pragmatic semiotic based on their attempt to design buildings consciously for the effects they now have on their users. In this sense, the effect of choreography been designed to bring back the memories of the war and their movements. looking at a similar example, “The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin”, Peter Eisenman seems to have designed the paths and the movements in a certain choreography. Eisenman in this memorial signifies the lives of the 60000 Jews that were killed by Nazi Germany. In Eisenman’s memorial, the topography of the site creates the choreography and draws the visitors to experience it. Some would go in between the stones, some on top and while experiencing the movement through the site, one can understand and see the signified essence at that moment. It signifies, trenches, bushes, mass graves, bodies and represent the feeling of fear, darkness and scape.
Multiple thresholds throughout the site that connects a space to another can demonstrate the idea of choreography. The triangle of victory at the entrance followed by a pool of water, the walls, plaques, trees and landscape are the thresholds every visitor experience. Moving by each threshold a new story might have begun. For example, moving from a tight, restricted space between the walls to an open landscape creates simulations to the feeling of freedom and calmness after trauma and tension of the war. A similar simulation was described by Eisenman, that he designed the pathways in a way that “the visitors feel the loss and disorientation of the site from place to another that Jews felt during the Holocaust”. As a methodology, architects choreograph their memories and narrative within the site landscape and context to show the visitors their direct relationship to history and to live the memory. Diagram 2 will further assist you in understanding the movements around the memorial.
Choreography, in general, can be described as a different move or a collection of activities or like how George F. MacDonald describes it as a pilgrimage on a pilgrimage site. It believed that the choreography of the movement created by visitors within the site demonstrates war memorials and museums as a sacred place. As seen in the diagram, it illustrates the unplanned movement of the visitors around the site which interestingly has a likelihood to the idea of creating the such said pilgrimage site. (diagram 2)
As Jencks had claimed, architectures over the years have been recognised as a tool and the verb for action. It provides the language to exhibit and eternalise the past and yet remains silent. These characteristics of architectural designs strengthen theories of post-structuralism and empower the ideas of semiotic cooperated within different themes such as fragmentation and choreography. The architects aim to utilise semiotics to convey to the public the powerful relationship to the sacrifice of those who were lost in the war. They re-establish the absence concepts to the presence and create a journey where the memory itself takes us through. South Australian Garden of Remembrance seamlessly transfers its feelings within its choreography of movements and the fragmentation of stories around the site. Architecture examines and produces a material in which memories been transmitted and communicated through forms, as a deconstructivism theory, the kind of memory it produces is relevant to the public themselves.
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- Image1- https://www.quora.com/How-did-trench-warfare-work-When-did-soldiers-have-time-to-dig-trenches.
- Fatimah Al-Ameen, South Australian Garden of Remembrance, image taken Oct 25, 2018.
- Image2- https://militaryhistorynow.com/2013/07/11/war-of-words-the-amazing-history-of-trench-newspapers/.
- Image3- Virtual war memorial, Australia – Centennial Park – South Australian, https://vwma.org.au/explore/cemeteries/148.