Shrine of Remembrance Second World War Memorial Forecourt, Melbourne

Reflection

While the Shrine of Remembrance Second World War Memorial Forecourt represents the seamless integration of the experience of World War II into Victoria’s most iconic place of remembrance, the modernist design sensibilities of the Cenotaph reflect the new ideas of a changing nation.

Prior to the end of World War II, the Trustees of the Shrine of Remembrance began to consider how to incorporate a new memorial into the existing World War I Shrine. According to Bruce Scates in A Place to Remember: A History of the Shrine of Remembrance, while the Trustees favoured a new monument, they agreed that a second monument should not detract from or rival the original memorial. They had even hoped that this new memorial might incorporate elements of the Shrine’s original design that had been omitted, such as the eight marble statues depicting Strength, Integrity, Brotherhood, Charity, Faith, Courage, Honour and Love.

This posed a design challenge for architects to translate the experience of a different war, and a different generation, into the context of an existing memorial. This was also on the backdrop of shifting public opinion on forms of memorialisation. A public poll undertaken in 1945 suggested that as many as 90% of Victorians opposed purely commemorative memorials, and favouring utilitarian memorials such as hospitals, community centres, and swimming pools.

In June 1949, the Trustees launched an official competition for the design of the World War II memorial, with the forecourt forming a key component of the competition brief. Entry was limited to architects who were residents of the British Empire and had served in either of the World Wars. The competition was won by Czechoslovakian modernist architect Ernest Edward Milston (formerly Arnost Edward Mühlstein), whose personal experience of war had brought him to Australia.

A black and white photograph of a man standing alone in a formal forecourt. There is a large cenotaph monument with a sculpture on its top in the background. The photograph has been damaged with several marks. Shrine of Remembrance Second World Memorial Forecourt, by Mark Strizic, 1955. Source: State Library of Victoria.

Milston was an established architect practicing in Prague from 1920. He travelled widely in Europe to study architecture of all periods and became one of the leading exponents of modernist architecture in Czechoslovakia. But Milston was also Jewish, and fled his home country in 1939 following warning of his impending arrest. He arrived in Adelaide in 1940, obtaining a position in the architectural office of Lawson & Cheesman, before enlisting with the Australian Army as a “friendly alien” and serving with the Royal Australian Engineers.

A black and white photograph shows a man in uniform standing beside a huge stone sculpture mid construction. The sculpture features servicemen holding a fallen soldier above their heads. Teisutis Zikaras at work on The Fallen Warrior Group, c1954-55. Courtesy of Marcus Zikaras.

Milston’s forecourt design reflects the classical roots of the existing Shrine—which was based on the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus—taking inspiration from the Acropolis in Athens. The Forecourt is in the shape of a non-denominational cross, and features flagpoles to represent the armed forces, an eternal flame, and 12.5m Cenotaph. At the pinnacle of the Cenotaph sits a Footscray basalt sculpture depicting six service personnel in the battle dress of the Navy, Army and Air Force, carrying a bier on which lies a fallen comrade.

Milston’s concept for the Cenotaph sculpture was essential to the forecourt design and so a separate competition to design the sculpture was announced by the Trustees in 1951. Entry to the sculpture competition was restricted to ex-servicemen and women who had served in one of the world wars and lived in Australia for at least twelve months, thereby excluding most of the newly arrived European sculptors.

The competition was won by artist George Allen, who was an official war artist serving in New Guinea during World War II, and head of the RMIT sculpture department (1933-65). Allen’s winning design, The Fallen Warrior Group, was notable as all “irrelevant details” were deliberately excluded “in order to give full import to the emotional content” and the idea of sacrifice. It was also notable for the static quality of its design, suitable for translation into granite and for positioning atop the cenotaph.

Allen was assisted in the fabrication of the Cenotaph by colleague Stanley James Hammond, student Max Lyle, and Lithuanian sculptor Teisutis Zikaras, who had arrived from Lithuania via Germany two years earlier.

According to historian Bruce Scates, the forecourt allowed the Shrine of Remembrance to fulfill its potential as a centre for commemoration. The Pool of Reflection, which was removed to make way for the forecourt, had proved to be an obstacle to ceremonies and parades and the small terraces were inadequate “for the vast congregations that attended every Anzac Day”. He notes that Milston’s design balanced symbolism, innovation and utility, whilst blending elements of the old and new to integrate into the Shrine’s original concept.

A black and white photograph of Queen Elizabeth standing on a podium in front of a microphone. A crowd of people, some wearing military uniforms, can be seen in the background. Text on the bottom of the image says Her Majesty dedicating the forecourt at the Shrine of Remembrance. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth dedicating the forecourt at the Shrine of Remembrance, 1954. Source: State Library of Victoria.

Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II dedicated the forecourt and lit the eternal flame during her first visit to Australia in 1954. The Forecourt design not only brought Milston significant publicity, but the £1,000 prize allowed him to finally establish his own architectural office, enabling him to forge a long and successful career in industrial and residential design in Australia.

Located on traditionally owned Aboriginal lands.