Today in Normandy the heads of state of the World War II allied forces and the last few veterans are commemorating the seventieth anniversary of D-day, a day that changed the course of modern history.
Last week that I visited an exhibition in the Cité de l’Architecture at the Palais de Chaillot, Architecture en Uniform about the advances in architecture and design generated by the second world war. It clearly showed how World War II effected the built environment and design far from the front line. One particularly evocative type of space, so familiar to us in movies, was missing from the exhibition for me was the operations rooms so I’ve decided to make up for it and deal with it here.
In war films the operations table in the war map room is a familiar sight. Each major front or operation had it’s own situations room. An intense hidden space, that’s cut off from the word, with all the subterfuge of a basement night club. The dynamics of the fighting may have played out on the field, but the dynamics of the war were played out on the map room tables. All the intelligence about everything from weather to enemy positions, that were gathered by radar, radio or sightings, was channeled towards the situations map on the table which has an accurate position all the troops, little wooden blocks modeling thousands of men that were pushed around with rakes by smartly dressed wrens, almost like in a game but far more serious. These physical models of the battle field allowed informed decision as to how to maneuver in battle.
What happened on these tables controlled the lives of the men in the battle field, and the outcome of a war.
For Steven Spielberg the best set ever designed was the war room set from the Stanley Kuberic cold war satire film, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”, by set designer Ken Adams. I certainly don’t disagree.
People entered the set by a regular small door in the corner, to be bowled over by one massive, minimal cavernous space that was the war room. It’s triangular section meant it had a slopping ceiling so it was impossible to hang a light rigging onto it. The room was dominated by the round 6.7 meter diameter table, that seated 31 people, with a ring of lighting above the table which the only source to light the actors faces. All this was reflected in the pool like shiny black floor, creating a dramatic reverential space. Kuberic insisted that the table was covered with green baize, the fabric used cover poker tables. Even though it was to be filmed in black and white, he wanted to create the atmosphere of a poker game for the actors.
“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!” President Merkin Muffley underlined that the talk-shop around this green table was the real battlefield, in a war that was fought with psychology rather than weapons. As in the point made by Dr. Strangelove about the nuclear bomb, “The whole point of the doomsday machine…is lost if you keep it a secret!”.
This space became so mythical that when President Reagan moved into The White House he wanted to see the War room. When he was told that there wasn’t one he replied that he thought there was, having seen it in Dr. Strangelove.
While walking down rue Stephenson a while ago with the photographer Elena Perlino (In photo), I spotted a dumped 1950′s table in the street. I pulled it out from where it was half hidden to show Elena, as she could have been interested in taking it. She kind of hesitated and weighed it up and I looked a little closer too. On noticing that the wheels were rusted spotted and the veneer was chipped I started humming and hawing that it perhaps wasn’t such a great find, when at this moment, the guy in the photo came up. He was enthusiastic and if we weren’t taking it this table was definitely his baby. So I said to Elena that it wasn’t really worth it after all, and since he’s so bowled over by it let him have it.
So the guy went off delighted with his new old table, and I think it has a good home where it will but poor Elena, within a minute she realised that she loved this little table but had let it go. Now, weeks later, she still regrets letting it go. I’m afraid I can’t get the table back for her, I wish I’d encouraged her to keep it, though it’s too late now. But I can give her this post to remember it by, the nostalgia of something that nearly was. Sorry Elena, the next feral table that I find is yours.
“My table is now brightly, now dimly lighted. It’s temperature varies. It may receive an ink stain. One of it’s legs may be broken. It may be repaired, polished, and replaced part by part. But, for me, it remains the table at which I daily write.”
Ernst Mach 1838-1919 Austrian physicist.