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Mourning the People's Princess: Public Grief and the Consecration of Space

Part 2 Dissertation 2010
George Wilson
Oxford Brookes University Oxford | UK
In the early hours of Sunday 31st August 1997, Diana, Princess of Wales, was attempting to evade the attention of the world media when the car she was travelling in crashed in Pont de l’Alma tunnel, killing her, Dodi Fayed and the driver.
It is said that over 50 million blooms (Jack, 1997) were placed in Kensington Palace Gardens in response to Diana’s death. Moreover, during the two days either side of Diana’s funeral thousands of people temporarily inhabited Kensington Palace Gardens. For a very short time the gardens played host to a spontaneous society: a society based on equality, homogeneity and comradeship. During this time a group of British mourners extended the rituals and practices associated with mourning to forge an ideological, activist community in reaction to the convergence of several cultural forces [the Diana Event].
This dissertation uses the Diana Event as a vehicle to discuss the phenomenon of spontaneous memorials, British attitudes towards public grief and the spatial implications of a societal desire to converge into a bereaved community. This dissertation firstly argues that the adaptation of rituals and practices at this unprecedented scale coaxed mourners into a performance spectacle: an extremely public and colourful performance that challenged the stoic protocol for dealing with death. Secondly, this dissertation argues that a by-product of this ritual behaviour was the reclamation of public space through consecration and that this process can be applied to other public space. Thirdly, this dissertation raises questions of institutional and architectural roles in the formalisation of loss in public, ending with an introduction to the application of this research: Space Anonymously Revived. Space Anonymously Revived proposes the adoption of methodologies for composing indeterminate music by architects to design a framework for subjects to co-produce, or anonymously revive, space in response to cultural loss; in this case a fictitious fire at London’s Ridley Road Market. The aim is that such a framework would engender the formalisation of loss in public in any material, in any place, by anyone, and on behalf of a society more attuned to loss than any other to date (Walter, 2008).

George Wilson

This dissertation is a probing study of the way in which the British public mourned the death of Diana, The Princess of Wales. By focusing in a non-judgemental way on this iconic public figure, the study reveals how groups, which are not architect led, collaborate to overcome their sadness of loss. Using a chronology of grieving ritual events, George plots and critically analyses a range of spontaneous memorials created to pay tribute to Diana. He argues that spontaneous memorials such as ‘folk assemblages’ and wayside shrines are a crucial way in which people grieve and that their value is important for architects to understand.
George’s original writing style for the dissertation mixes personal accounts and testimonies by mourners found in newspapers, documentaries etc, with his own memory of hearing the news of Diana’s death, with a solid and scholarly analysis of the research in the field. Using various disciplinary lenses, George examines in a comprehensive way, the relationship between the spatial spectacle and the performance spectacle. Among other experts, he refers to the writings of sociologists, Tony Walter and Jennifer Chandler; cultural theorists and philosophers, Jack Santino and Jean Baudrillard; and architects, Jonathan Hill and Jeremy Till, the latter of which he uses to question, respectively, architecture’s materiality and the autonomy of the architect as lead designer. The diverse range of ‘voices’ which ‘speak’ in the text shows George’s sensitivity to the experience and records of those he writes about.
As equal a designer and researcher, George concludes his dissertation with a design proposal titled ‘Space Anonymously Revived’ in which he applies his dissertation research to the fictitious cultural loss by fire of London’s Ridley Road Market. Inspired by his research on how groups can memorialise immaterially, he imagines himself as one designer within a group who, like John Cage, contributes to create an ethereal tribute.
This is an outstanding dissertation which offers an important cultural commentary about Britain and the way public mourning occurs. It is a timely dissertation which reflects on the architect’s practice in society, questioning in particular, the historical top down design approach.
Dr Igea Troiani

Dr Igea Troiani
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