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Setting a legend in stone

A modernist sculptor captured Canada's conflicted feelings about Vimy and the war. Restorers had to cope with his troublesome innovations.

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

The Vimy Memorial commanding Hill 145 in France is an amazing statement, a proclamation to the world of Canada's unhyphenated identity and a bold declaration in architectural modernism of the meaning of human existence told through stark, white stone.

The government of Canada let it fall apart for 40 years until The Globe and Mail's European correspondent at the time, Alan Freeman, wrote about its decay on the newspaper's front page on May 13, 2000.

The manifestation of our national psyche was crumbling, bits and pieces of it crashing to the ground, Mr. Freeman reported. Part of the memorial's base was cordoned off for fear that the cracked arm of one of the statues would fall.

Moss and mould smirched the once-gleaming blocks of limestone pried from a Roman quarry in Croatia. The drainage system had ceased to work. Many of the names carved into the memorial's base of the 11,285 First World War Canadian soldiers who died in France but whose bodies were never found had become obliterated.

That was us -- our face to the world, our contempt for our dead, our dismissal of our own mythology.

The government was shamed into action. It announced a $30-million restoration plan for all of Canada's Great War memorials in France and Belgium, with two-thirds of the money earmarked for the national memorial at Vimy. Work began in 2003.

On Monday, the restored monument will be rededicated in the presence of the Queen, the Prime Minister and French President Jacques Chirac. Somewhere nearby will be Julian Smith. The Ottawa conservancy architect has given four years of his life to returning the Vimy Memorial to the dazzling vision in modernism and spiritual symbolism created 70 years ago by Walter Allward.

The project has been in large part a journey into Mr. Allward's mind -- guided by restoration team member and architectural historian Jacqueline Hucker -- to understand what he set out to create.

It has been about grappling with the technological hiccups of early, emerging modernism that Mr. Allward couldn't have anticipated. It has involved a derring-do search for the precise white Seget limestone that he used, and having to deal along the way with shady characters around the quarries on Croatia's Dalmatian coast.

And it has meant dismantling the monument and putting it back together like a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle -- with the restoration team's hearts in their mouths for fear that they lacked the expertise to make the pieces fit with the precision demanded by Mr. Allward's geometric forms and concept of a seamless surface.

In the aftermath of the war, with its 10 million people dead and 21 million wounded, the combatants erected battlefield memorials to their casualties. Britain and the other dominions of the emerging Commonwealth built monuments of Edwardian sensibility.

On the other hand, Mr. Allward's design, chosen by a Canadian architectural jury in 1921, reflected the feeling of many artists of the time that the Great War had ruptured history -- a feeling expressed through a modernism that rejected traditional art that was based on the values seen as contributing to the slaughter of 1914-19.

Mr. Allward's Vimy Memorial is a soaring white surface on a landscape -- and unlike other memorial designers, who created beautiful landscaped gardens around their work, he left his setting as a battlefield, underscoring the juxtaposition of his monument's message and the catastrophic deaths of war.

(Shortly after restoration began, the bodies of two German soldiers were found in the top 18 inches of soil. "You're reminded that this is not only an example of early modernism but it is a sacred landscape . . . that still runs with the blood of these soldiers," Julian Smith says.)

With its symbols of classic Greek and Christian spirituality, the memorial reaches toward a new universal language of hope, peace, justice and charity, giving substance to ideals but presenting them without cultural baggage. The style is not Edwardian, English, Canadian or German. It is abstract, pure form,

The synthesis of Classic and Renaissance mythologies and intense passions expressed through the human body Mr. Allward owed to sculptor Auguste Rodin, whose work he had studied in France.

He was intellectually in tune with artists such as British theatre designer Gordon Craig, whose stark avant-garde stage sets stressed the isolation and melancholy of the human figure in the vast landscapes of the mind. Mr. Craig's 1905 design for Electra looks eerily like a model for the Vimy Memorial, with a hooded, brooding Electra flanked by white geometric pillars like Mr. Allward's mourning Canada Bereft flanked by his two pillars.

But Mr. Allward's zest for innovation paradoxically caused big trouble.

He used reinforced concrete -- which only recently had been invented -- as the memorial's core, and had the Seget stone set into the concrete while it was still wet. The stone cladding was designed with the largest possible blocks (some weighing 14 tonnes), the narrowest possible joints (a few millimetres) and the most continuous possible surface textures to create the sense of a monument carved out of a single block.

What Mr. Allward apparently didn't realize is that concrete and stone expand and contract at different rates as temperatures change. When the mortar in the joints was fresh and flexible, much of the movement could be absorbed. But over time, the stones began to crack, with corners and other bits shearing off.

The original quarry had been closed. Replacement rocks the Canadian government found elsewhere were harder than the Seget stone and sometimes accelerated the cracking. After 30 per cent of the original stone had been replaced, the problems were only getting worse.

The names of the missing dead posed their own challenge.

The inscriptions had not been part of Mr. Allward's original design approved by Ottawa. He did not like the idea when the government subsequently asked him to include them, acting on behalf of the Imperial (later Commonwealth) War Graves Commission, which had established the principle that all the war's casualties would be remembered, those whose bodies were found and those who simply disappeared. (The names of 7,024 Canadian soldiers missing in Belgium are carved on the Menin Gate Memorial at Ypres.)

On other Commonwealth battlefield monuments, the names are carved on individual stones that can be removed from the wall when the letters fade and sent out for re-engraving. What Mr. Allward did instead was to inscribe the names in continuous bands around the base, across both vertical and horizontal seams in the stone cladding in keeping with his concept of the memorial as a single block. The effect was nice: The names look as if they're floating on the stone.

But because the stones were set in concrete, they could not easily be removed and sent for re-engraving when the lettering faded. And as they deteriorated along the seams, they aggravated the deterioration to the names.

The restoration team made two decisions at the outset: The first was to bring Ms. Hucker on board as architectural and cultural historian; the second was to establish an advisory board that included conservation architects and military historians, plus retired General Roméo Dallaire and author Jane Urquhart, whose novel The Stone Carvers was about a family who worked on the memorial.

The advisory committee recommended that the monument be fully restored, rather than merely preserved or rehabilitated. Restoration meant much of the monument needed to be taken apart -- the stones cut away from the concrete with a specially designed two-metre-diameter saw and a new setting designed with special mortar so that the concrete and the rock could freely expand and contract.

Delicate negotiations were initiated to purchase stone from the area where Mr. Allward had obtained the original supply. Julian Smith likened it to a Wild West movie at one point, with bribes being asked for and one quarry owner threatening to arrange for an accident to happen to a rival's equipment.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which maintains the Vimy site, wanted the names of the missing to be contained on individual stones as at other memorials, but Mr. Smith insisted that Mr. Allward's technique be followed.

All the names were recarved by an engraver known as Luc, who sat day by day on his wooden stool. A few names of men were omitted because their bodies had been discovered, or because it was found that they had enlisted under false names, being underage, and they had turned up somewhere else.

The project began facing two risks: Whether enough stone could be found and whether the restoration team could match Mr. Allward's exquisite workmanship in dismantling and reassembling the monument. They succeeded -- although the project was well under way before the team knew it would get the stone it needed.

Four years of Smith's life were spent at the memorial.

"It makes you think about the Great War and about modernism and about being a Canadian. About being a Canadian in the world," he says.

"I mean, Vimy is remarkable because it's sitting there in France as a national monument without any regional identity. That I find fascinating, because I love the layering of identities in Canada. I think that's what makes us Canadian. But Vimy exists outside that. It exists in a kind of pure form as being a Canadian monument."

Something like it probably could never be built again.

"It would be sort of artificial," Mr. Smith agrees.

Michael Valpy is a senior writer with The Globe and Mail.

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